Throw on any iconic rock album from the mid-1970’s to early 1980’s, and chances are, you’ll hear the distinct sound of pitch-shifting and harmonizing effects that were just beginning to revolutionize how records were being produced — from the rhythm instruments on David Bowie’s 1975 album “Young Americans”, to the arena-sized choruses of AC/DC’s “Back In Black”, to the signature double-tracked tones of Eddie Van Halen’s finger-blistering guitar work in his band’s 1978 debut album, “Van Halen”.
An important genesis of that sound would first make its waves in the basement of Sound Exchange recording studio on West 54th Street in New York City in 1975, when sound engineer Anthony Agnello teamed up with Richard Factor and his company, Eventide, to create the world’s first commercially-available digital effects unit, known as the H910 Harmonizer®.
Today, the device might be best recognized as grandfather to modern auto-tune technology, which has since been famously adopted by everyone from Katy Perry to Kanye West.
Last year, Agnello’s contributions in sound technology were recognized with a Technical Grammy® Award by the Recording Academy, and on May 1, Agnello will be welcomed at NJIT where he will accept the Jay Kappraff Award for Excellence in Science and Arts at the 2019 College of Science and Liberal Arts Awards Ceremony.
Ahead of his visit, we caught up with Agnello to discuss his recent recognition and work in the field of sound engineering dating back almost 50 years.
In the past year, you’ve been awarded the Technical Grammy® Award, and now, NJIT’s Jay Kappraff Award for Excellence in Science and Arts. What has it been like being formally recognized like this after decades of contributions in the music industry?
The Technical Grammy was both gratifying and a bit sobering.
It is gratifying in that my dad, who emigrated from Italy to give his children opportunities he never had, would be proud to know that his sacrifice bore fruit. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough for the Grammy award but he was well aware of my contributions to recording. My 90-year-old mom is still with us and is quite proud that I was honored by the Recording Academy.
It is sobering because this award is given to people for their lifelong technical contributions. It puts a stamp on my career and highlights the fact that I’m now officially, certifiably, a fossil. And yet I continue to work with a talented team of developers who inspire me. I don’t feel that I’m done.
When Eventide introduced the H910 Harmonizer® in 1975, did you have any idea how it would influence the sound of so many diverse artists — the likes of David Bowie, Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, Kraftwerk and Parliament-Funkadelic? Even New York City's Channel 5 became an early user, applying the device to pitch shift the audio of “I Love Lucy” reruns that were being sped up to add more time for commercials. What do you recall most from that time and at what point did you realize your innovation was a success?
While it is true that some of the first units were sold to New York’s Channel 5 broadcasting studios, engineers and producers were also among the earliest adopters. The I Love Lucy application took us completely by surprise, which is why it comes up when discussing the history.
I joined Eventide in early 1973 and a recording studio, Sound Exchange, occupied the top floor of our building. From time to time, I would assist on recording sessions and I had access to the studio on nights and weekends.
At the time, Eventide was producing the first digital audio device, the Digital Delay Line (DDL), designed by my partner, Richard Factor. DDLs were incredibly simple and very expensive. They could only achieve 200msec of delay and yet we were selling them for the equivalent of $25,000. Few recording studios could afford them and those that could rarely had more than one.
By 1974, Richard built a primitive pitch change module. Consequently, Eventide always had several in the shop that I could ‘borrow’ to set up in the studio for my sessions. By patching multiple DDL’s to the studio console, I was able to experiment with feedback and pitch change on various audio tracks, which led me to believe that I could create a product that would combine the elements of delay, pitch change and feedback in a single, easy-to-use box. Using these techniques in recording, it was clear to me that such a device would usher in a new world of possibilities.
When I built the first prototype of the Harmonizer and first used it in the studio, the sounds that I was getting made it clear that I was on to something new.
After you helped engineer the Harmonizer, you went on to become president of Eventide’s audio division. What has inspired your work and the many innovations that you have introduced with the company?
As far as inspiration goes, it’s driven by advances in technology. New technology makes it possible to do old things in new ways and makes it possible to do new things never before imagined.
At the start of my career, all audio everywhere was analog — music, recording, sound reinforcement, broadcast, telephone, etc. Today only speakers and microphones are analog — everything else is digital. Looking back at my work, I was in the right place at the right time.
While pursuing my master's in electrical engineering at CUNY, I focused on audio and read about the research being conducted at Bell Labs and the first experiments in digital audio. Upon graduation, I spent nights and weekends playing music and had several opportunities to attend recording sessions in NYC’s studios. One night, at a studio on 8th Avenue in Manhattan, a recording engineer mentioned that a fellow named Richard Factor was starting a new company to design audio products. I took his advice and the rest, as they say, is history.
To this day, music continues to be my inspiration, and my goal remains to help create new tools that inspire and broaden the sonic palette for artists.
Has there been a particular artist, producer, or engineer — past or present — that you feel has pushed the boundaries most in terms of experimenting with technology to create new sounds and produce innovative music?
A few names that come to mind would be Frank Zappa, Tony Visconti, George Massenburg, Prince, Suzanne Ciani, Laurie Anderson and Laurie Spiegel.
Auto-tune is something used by virtually every popular music artist and producer today, but do you see any other sound technologies that might revolutionize the industry in our current digital age of music production, just as the Harmonizer did in the 70’s?
I am not responsible for auto-tune, though I wrote a patent disclosure in 1980 describing the method that became known as "auto-tune." I never pursued the patent thinking that it was obvious. I was wrong…someone patented the idea 1996, almost 20 years later!
Today, the advances in signal processing and its capability to slice, dice, mangle and massage audio, continues to amaze me.
Sound is now made and modified using computers and computers continue to get faster and more powerful. Ever-increasing processing power makes it possible to modify sound in innovative ways. Eventide has developed a technique for splitting a sound into its fundamental transient and tonal components; something that I could only dream about decades ago.
There are new techniques emerging to characterize the reverberation of an acoustic space in a new way that should open up new possibilities to manipulate the character of a space. Neural networks are also being developed and trained to emulate the way humans perceive sound, and I expect a number of new innovations will surely result.
Finally, what advice would you offer today’s young innovators looking to begin creating and working in the field sound engineering or recording technology?
First and foremost, don’t get stuck. Life is fleeting. If you find yourself in an unsatisfying situation, move on.
Second, listen! Train your ears and brain. Learn to listen critically. Listen to all genres of music and train yourself to focus on each instrument in a mix. Listen to the sounds around you — the acoustics of a church or concert hall, bird song, or a babbling brook. Listen and think about what elements make up sounds. It’s important to develop a facility for hearing critically, and analyzing sound.
Third, find a mentor. Offer to intern in a recording studio or live venue. Get close to the people who are making, recording and mixing music. Learn to hear what they hear.