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Tim Jessup: Not just an engineer but a doctor
Tim Jessup: Not just an engineer but a doctor
Tim Jessup: Not just an engineer but a doctor

Published on: 05/14/2024


Tim Jessup is an audio engineer who has been based in Sedona since 2000. Jessup’s most notable work has been for the band Chicago, whose trumpet player, Lee Loughnane, also lives in Sedona. This past March, he was deeply engaged in producing a 5.1 audio mix for the band’s latest concert film. Daulton Venglar/Larson Newspapers.

Just past the triple arches of the Sedona Cultural Park, at the top of a knoll from which a viewer can look out toward the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness, there is a studio where a man flies a desk that has more buttons and knobs than a Learjet through an invisible landscape.

That man is Tim Jessup, sound engineer for the rock band Chicago, who brought his uncannily-intimate knowledge of sound to the red rocks in 2000, capping a career in which he worked with some of the most iconic artists of the 20th century.

‘The Beatles Were God’

Jessup’s interest in the mechanics and aesthetics of sound started early, inspired by his father, who was an electrical and mechanical engineer working for IBM.

“The stereo didn’t really exist properly yet at that time,” Jessup said. “My father had built a stereo system, which he then racked up in a closet in our house with beautiful wood trim, shelving for his LPs and our big radio station plattersize turntable, and then all the electronics were up above that. I just remember as a 3-year-old opening that door and looking up and seeing all the lights and the knobs, and I swear I heard angels go ‘Ahhh!’ I was just so blown away by what I was looking at and all I wanted to do was get my hands on it … I grew up through the ’60s and early ’70s listening to all the incredible music coming out on audiophile speakers on a tremendous system. And I didn’t realize that’s what I was hearing because that’s all I knew, but my ears became very attuned to that.”

“My whole family was musical as well,” Jessup added. “My mother sang opera. I have photos of my mom in the rehearsal barn at Tanglewood, Mass., with Leonard Bernstein conducting the group that she was singing with.

“We played all the time. I was always playing guitar or piano. The piano was all around the house because my mother taught piano and she actually graduated from Oberlin [College] in 1945 with a music degree, and if she hadn’t raised five children, she probably would have been a well-known soprano.”

“My mother had a seven inch reel-to reel-that she used to record her rehearsals and our students, and it had this sound-on-sound feature, which enabled me to overdub parts,” Jessup said. “Now I could start to layer and what I found myself doing was not just creating music, but I wanted something to put the music in context. I needed a story. So I would make up these little like Jules Verne sci-fi scripts and narrate them and then I would compose music to that using the overdubbing process of sound-on-sound … the way I played as a child was to get my hands on different instruments and layer them together and create ensembles.”

Then came the Beatles.

“When I was a kid, to me, the Beatles were God,” Jessup reminisced. “I was so young when I saw them on the Ed Sullivan show for the first time. But I was 7 years old, and it blew my little 7-year-old mind and changed my life forever. Right then and there.”

His older brother formed one of the thousands of garage bands that sprang up across the United States in the wake of Beatlemania, and by the time he was 11, Jessup was playing in one such band himself. In high school, he literally built the school’s radio station from scratch using spare parts from his father’s experiments.

“You couldn’t buy a DJ mixer. They didn’t exist. So I had to build one,” Jessup said. “We had a little news crew to go around and get school news and sports and all like that, too. But I got to sit there and play all my favorite music and be high all day smoking joints. I wasn’t really much of a druggie, but in high school, it was just that’s what was happening back in the early ’70s.”

At the same time, Jessup was recording the bands he was working with at a small studio in Upstate New York: “It was a small four-track professional recording facility, a treated room, incredible mic selection, really lousy console, but it was a place where I could go and learn the basics.

“The recording studio itself was a creative tool. It wasn’t just a place to go and, you know, lay down tracks and put together a record and release it. It was a place to compose, it was a place to play with effects and explore my creativity, and I wanted to know more about it.”

From New York, Jessup moved on to the College for Recording Arts in San Francisco, which had taken over the facilities of the former Golden State Recorders, from which he graduated in 1978.

“The San Francisco facility was a fun studio, lots of handson, lots of immersion,” Jessup said. “The school not only had a full-on multi-track studio, and a microphone collection that was probably worth a million bucks … and then they also had a disc-mastering studio as well with a big Neumann lathe, and I learned how to cut records.”

Over the Water

After college, Jessup turned down a job at the Hit Factory in New York for $8 an hour. “I would have been the assistant engineer on John Lennon’s last album,” he remembered. “I probably would have been there the night he was shot as well. Which I’m glad that I wasn’t.”

Instead, by 1980, he was working at Olympia Studios in Munich, where he met his greatest love, the Solid State Logic SL4000 console.

“I would say 90% to 95% of all the hit records that you heard on radio throughout the entire 1980s and into the 1990s are mixed on one of these consoles — not necessarily recorded on one of these, but mixed on one of these, because this is a surgical [expletive] tool,” Jessup said. “The first time I sat down at one of these after working on the Harrison [console], and I went and went for a highend EQ boost on something and just instinctively turned it where I would turn it on Harrison, I was like, ‘Ouch!’ It was like a laser beam. It was so powerful that the EQ, you could hurt yourself with it … The SSL was like a Ferrari. You know, you don’t just jump in a Ferrari and put your foot on the accelerator.

“I came back to the states after Lennon’s death. I really didn’t like living in Germany … it’s gray skies all the time. Rainy, it’s really depressing. At that time, [President] Ronald Reagan had just come into office. He was installing nuclear missiles in their backyard and Germans hated Americans. And I was the only American on staff in this studio and no one would talk to me.

“I hung in there because I didn’t want to leave the SSL. I thought I’d never see one of these again, let alone have one in my living room,” Jessup added, looking at the SL4000 in his living room. “I mean, those consoles at the time were $800,000.”

Go West, Young Man

Within a week of starting to send out resumes after getting back to the U.S., Jessup was hired at Kendun Recorders* in Los Angeles following three days of “grueling” interviews.

“Probably the main reasons were, No. 1, I knew how to fly an SSL console and computer, and Kendun had become the SSL distributor in the United States at that time,” Jessup remembered.

“This is a studio where I’ve got people like Quincy Jones and James Ingram coming through the door. I worked with Christopher Cross there on ‘Arthur’s Theme’ for the movie [“Arthur”]. We mixed the Academy Award version of that song … and then the piano part was played live by Dudley Moore, who I didn’t know was a concert pianist. I just thought he was a drunk. So I ended up working with a lot of major artists, most of them R&B bands like Atlantic Starr, DeBarge, the Gap Band, a lot of funk. A lot of fun stuff. I loved it. Except for the drugs.”

In Jessup’s telling, life in the LA studios in the ’80s was comparable to life on Wall Street.

“There’d be a coffee table in the middle of the control room with a pile of cocaine this high on it,” Jessup said. “These young recording artists are barely out of their teens. They would bring their little, obviously not legal-age groupies, into the studio and literally be [expletive] them all over the studio. You know, on the floor in the lobby outside the control room door … My average work day back then was three days long. I wouldn’t leave the studio for three days at a time. It’s a good thing there were showers in the studio.”

“When Michael Jackson was working on ‘Thriller,’ they were taking second engineers out on stretchers … they just got through human beings one after another until they had nothing left. And, honestly, a number of the finest engineers that I worked with, was honored to work for and learned from, they didn’t survive it.”

The Studio cat Chloe lounges on a speaker in Tim Jessup’s home studio in West Sedona. Chloe accompanies Jessup on the Steinway Model B, provides him with emotional support during the occasional three-day mixing bender and supplies an attentive audience for those subtle adjustments only she and her human can detect. Photo by Daulton Venglar/Larson Newspapers.

Coming to Sedona

But Jessup survived, and by 1995 had moved on to Phoenix, where he ran his own small studio specializing in voiceover and advertising work.

“I recorded Robert [Mitchum] on those, if you remember, those American Beef Council commercials,” Jessup chuckled. “Leslie Nielsen used to come in, Don Ameche … I worked with Don Ameche on a Disney film, ‘Homeward Bound’ … I worked with Fox Animation on ‘Anastasia,’ editing all the dialogue for John Kusack and Meg Ryan. I still to this day work with Gary Goldman and Don Bluth on occasion.”

The experience also gave him a chance to compose and improvise.

“Often I would be called on to do a sound-alike or knockoff of an actual song that exists,” Jessup explained. “So it would give me the opportunity to reverse-engineer the entire production and recreate every instrument, every part … My grandfather played mandolin and I actually have his mandolin, which is from the 1940s and whenever I’m working, if I’m composing music for a movie soundtrack or something, I always try to sneak that mandolin somewhere in there … I’ve got a Clio in the other room for something I composed for United Way many, many years ago.”

After watching most of his corporate clients slash their advertising budgets during the dot-com bubble market crash of 2000, Jessup decided to relocate to Sedona as a cost-saving measure.

“I found this beautiful house in the Orchards up in the back of Jordan Road,” he said. “I was able to take my overhead down from $18,000 a month to about $6,000 a month.”

Jessup met author Neale Donald Walsh at a seminar in Sedona and partnered with him to score a musical version of his children’s book “The Little Soul and the Sun,” which is now a collector’s item, and played gigs on the terrace at the now-defunct Apizza Heaven, where he met fellow sound engineer Mike Lattanzi.

“I happened to be sitting in his control room talking to Mike when the phone call came in,” Jessup remembered. “He turns around to me and he goes, ‘I just turned down Chicago.’ I said, ‘Why would you do that?’ ‘Well, they’re looking for a 5.1 mix. I’ve never worked in 5.1.’ I said, ‘Well, why don’t you call them back and tell them you can do the job and you and I will do it together. I know 5.1. I can set you up with that mix scenario.’”

They had five days to mix 26 tracks for Chicago’s upcoming album, and Jessup remembered that the experience was not only more than usually challenging, but also laid the groundwork for a 15-year relationship with the band.

“Jimmy Pankow gets really lazy with his trombone, and just doesn’t even play certain phrases,” Jessup said. “So I’m copying and pasting notes from other parts of the song, creating horn parts that aren’t there, going through all the vocals and pitch-correcting them all without using AutoTune, pitching them manually … I can adjust the pitch of that part of the note and pitchshift that up by that amount and it’s dead on every time, and Lee [Loughnane] saw me doing that, and he’s like, ‘This guy isn’t just an engineer. He’s got a set of ears. He could fix anything.’ And so I’ve been working with them ever since. That skill became invaluable to them and to protecting the band’s legacy … I’m not just an engineer. I’m a doctor.”

“At 75 years old, playing the trombone for two and a half hours a night, while still touring nine months out of the year, is quite a Herculean feat,” Jessup added. “Jimmy is allowed to drop a phrase or two here and there to catch his breath. To my knowledge, Jimmy is not even aware that I rebuild the occasional missing trombone phrase for the purposes of presenting his iconic horn arrangements as ‘complete’ on any commercial release that will be played millions of times.”

“Chicago was the very first rock ’n’ roll band I heard live,” Jessup continued. “I was 14 years old. I saw them at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the original band with Terry Kath … I never expected or wanted or dreamed that I would ever be working with them. All these years later. It just happened.”

While Jessup never intended to specialize in restoring legacy recordings, his talents have allowed him to make significant contributions to the field of rescuing vintage work, including Chicago’s 1970 performance at the Isle of Wight festival and a 1964 homemade recording of Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen jamming in his kitchen with a 16-year-old Janis Joplin.

“The recording had 60-cycle hum and it had this typewriter going in the background,” Jessup said. “It is now on YouTube and it’s gone viral. They call it the typewriter recording.”

New Releases

“I wish I had more time for composition in my old age,” Jessup reflected. “Probably that’s the direction I’ll go in … One of my pet projects I’m looking at doing, hopefully this year, is to record an instrumental orchestral album of Chicago songs. That will be interesting and I happen to have the London Symphony Orchestra here on my hard drive.

“[Another] pet project I’ve wanted to do for a long time, which hopefully I’ll get to also coming up this year, I’m calling it, just as a working title, ‘The Wisdom of Rock’ or ‘The Prophecy of Rock,’ and I’m wanting to take songs that were written and recorded 40 years ago, 50 years ago, in which the lyrics are speaking to the insanity of our world today. They were like prophetic from back then. Little songs like George Harrison, ‘Beware of Darkness.’ And ‘All Things Must Pass’ and other songs of wisdom that relate even more to where our society is today.”

“I’m really excited to get our Dolby Atmos system finally installed in here,” Jessup finished. “Now we’ll be mixing for 16 speakers.”

Jessup also enjoys playing duets with his studio feline, Chloe.

“She loves it,” Jessup said, watching her do her scales on one of his keyboards. “She loves to get on the Steinway. She is fascinated by the notes and the keys.”

*Editor’s note: The print version of this story stated that Jessup was employed at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. While Kendun Recorders shared a business partner with the Record Plant, it was a separate operation.

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