GRAMMY-nominated electronic music pioneer Carl Craig has had a prolific career since he started out making music in the late ‘80s in his native Detroit. With roots in the second-generation Detroit techno scene, he quickly established himself as an eclectic artist who collaborated with jazz greats, became a highly sought-after remixer, and, most recently, designed a large-scale sound installation for an immersive museum experience that draws from his extraordinary career.

As part of our 30th Anniversary celebrations, we went down memory lane with Carl as he told us about his first impressions of Vintage King, their Detroit connection, and what he is most proud of when he looks back on his life in music.

Take us back to when you were setting up your studio–what was it like sourcing gear in the early days and what does your current setup look like?

For any musician that's trying to get on, especially if you're not rich, you've got to beg, borrow, and steal to get whatever you can to craft your work. So I had years of borrowing gear that I gave back, and borrowing gear that I didn't give back. [Laughs] I've gone through gear that I bought just because I had the opportunity to have it, but I probably should never have considered buying, and then there was stuff that I returned that maybe I should have kept. 

I remember I had a Neve broadcast console that was redone and then I got rid of that because the engineer that I was working with moved from Detroit. Then I bought a small SSL and eventually got rid of that because it seemed like music technology was going to a place where it wasn't really necessary to have a mixing console anymore because everybody was working in Pro Tools or Ableton or FL Studio or whatever. 

I missed having a console though, so I decided to get one again–I got the SSL Origin and it's been great for me because there was a lot of gear that was really taking up space; I didn’t need to have eight different types of EQs and all these outboard compressors and stuff like that when I could go back to my roots and it's all right here in the machine. Now I use the console in a similar way as a guitarist uses his guitar – it’s an instrument to me. 

Ryan McGuire is my guy at Vintage King and there's this double-edged sword, being here in Detroit, because Vintage King is almost right around the block. [Laughs] So anything I needed, I could just call and either get shipped over or we could pick it up. It's just really simple like that. 

By the time it came to putting my current space together, I already had a lot of gear. I have these big PMC monitors that I first came across at Metropolis Studios in London and 20 years later, I got a pair. The room was built for monoliths like these and it also gives me enough space and leeway to put in the Mesanovic monitors, which are made locally in Detroit. 

My studio – which is a John Storyk design – is set up as a mix room, but I can do some limited recording; I do my radio shows in here too; my DJ gear is in a room right next door–it makes it possible to do just about all of my disciplines here in this space, minus the museum installation work I do, which takes up 20,000 square feet. 

Let's talk about some of the great artists you have worked with–what are the highlights, for you personally?

I'm really fortunate because I've been able to meet a lot of my musical heroes – I met Quincy Jones years ago, and I just met Nile Rodgers about two weeks ago. Also, working with local jazz artists has been one of the pinnacles of my career; artists like Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Phil Ranelin, Doug Hammond – all those guys are Detroit legends. I had the opportunity to work with Marcus on The Detroit Experiment record, which also had Bennie Maupin, Amp Fiddler, and scores of amazing players on it.

How did you first become aware of Vintage King and what was your first experience working with us?

Vintage King was in a separate small area of the office building where White Room Studios was, in Detroit; somebody that Mike Nehra knew owned the building so they had White Room Studios in there and Vintage King next door. From what I understood at the time, Vintage King was selling vintage guitar amps or something, and it wasn't something that I paid a lot of attention to until I realized that they were also selling consoles, vintage compressors, EQs, and things like that. 

The first piece that I remember buying off Mike was a Pultec EQ that I still have. Back then I was using a small Mackie mixer and going straight to DAT – that's how we made techno records. I was already trying to up my game and I think I had bought a Manley Pultec and when I plugged it in… I never knew a Pultec before, except from the description, but I was like, “I know this isn't the way this is supposed to sound!” I talked to Mike about it and he said, “No, you’ve got to have the real thing,” and he sent me home with a Pultec EQ and it never left. Mike guided me through a lot in those early times.

What was it like working with Vintage King in the early days of the business?

It was cool; Vintage King, in those days, was really artists and musicians that were running a shop; it was like the patients had taken over the asylum or something. [Laughs] So it was a lot of fun! 

Going into Vintage King, when they moved to Ferndale, was almost the equivalent of walking into a vintage car dealership or something–it was like being in a candy store! You walk into a place that has old Ferraris and Lamborghinis, the hood is up on one of them, you look inside and it’s incredible; then you walk to another thing and you don't realize that it's some sort of crazy vintage Aston Martin that needs to be restored – that's how Vintage King was. You’d walk in and see these Neves, SSLs, the APIs, and all this stuff – those are the Ferraris and the Bentleys and the Rolls-Royces of the audio engineering world.

Vintage King and you both have your roots in Detroit – how did that impact your journeys?

Yeah, Detroit was super important. It's definitely important for me in my career and Detroit, I think, became really important for Vintage King too. They had Kid Rock coming into their studio and when they moved to Ferndale, they were right down the street from Eminem’s studio. They did a lot of business with Eminem's guys and also did a lot of business with a lot of local guys that are really big, and I think they were able to do great business that way. 

Detroit is a city that a lot of people look to, and they see this advanced music that came from here–whether it was Detroit techno, or derivatives of Motown, or early punk that came from Detroit, or, even later, Detroit Rock City. We had so many big records and big artists that came from Detroit that I think it gave Vintage King this underground reputation – it gave them street cred. 

What are some of your favorite pieces of gear that you have purchased from Vintage King?

I don’t have it now, but I bought a Neve broadcast console that I got for what I thought was a pretty cheap price back in the day – we totally recapped and restored it and that was a really great purchase. Then there’s the SSL Origin, the Pultec, the PMCs, some 500 series things, and, most recently, I got an Eventide H9000…there's a lot of stuff that's in here that I bought from Vintage King. 

How has Vintage King helped you with gear selection, purchasing, and servicing in the past?

Well, Ryan's my guy, so I send a message to Ryan, he gets right back to me and we figure it out. I have plans to change the monitoring system and Ryan's been really good at helping me to figure out which direction to go in. If I need to hear something, he'll find a studio where I can go listen to it, whether it's in LA or in Paris.

What sets Vintage King apart from other pro audio gear companies?

I think that Vintage King has not only staked their reputation on having vintage gear that can be restored but they've also been at the forefront of getting new gear that they have that you can't find elsewhere, for example, a pair of Audeze headphones that I bought from Ryan. I'm actually looking for a pair that's smaller – to travel with – because I'm traveling every weekend and, really, the only place that you can get them is Vintage King. I could maybe find them in other places but ‘Audeze - Vintage King’ always pops up for me. [Laughs] So they're really good at having pieces that are not only esoteric but that are quite exclusive to themselves.

How has the industry changed since you first opened your doors and how has your studio adapted to those changes?

Streaming – streaming is the main thing. I started out with quarter-inch tape and vinyl, and I've gone through the change from vinyl to CD to using files to DJ with–I've watched MP3s and AACs and the development of all that stuff. I love streaming and listening, but it really destroyed a lot of the music market; streaming is something that I feel has watered down the music experience for a lot of people.

It's like when you walk down the street and a busker is singing and playing a song on a guitar – he's got a hat out there, so you can enjoy it without giving him something, or you can give him something. This is where we're kind of at with music streaming; we hear it and we’re singing along with it, but we're just passing by – we don't have to give him anything because we just got the music for free, and they can't demand that we give them anything because it's in the open air. I feel that's how people are with streaming–they take advantage of the freeness of it and it doesn't help.

They don't realize the large-scale effects of that on the industry.

No, they don't understand it. Not at all. And I don't understand how to make any money on streaming, to tell you the truth. [Laughs] 

Streaming also has an influence on the very structure of a song – there are no long intros, the songs themselves are shorter… 

I don't think it's changed the art form, it's just brought us back to where it was. Extended intros and things became a norm in the ‘70s, but if you listen to music from the ‘50s, the songs last about a minute-and-a-half to two minutes and they have an intro that might be just one or two bars long and then it’s right into the meat of the song.

When I was growing up, I listened to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem, who is from Detroit as well – he went to high school with my uncle. Now, on American Top 40, back in the day, they played part of a verse that goes into a chorus, then he starts talking and plays the next song. It was done for highlights because they had to get through 40 songs and some trivia within 90 minutes and you can't play the intro of anything for very long to get all that stuff in within 90 minutes. [Laughs] So TikTok is nothing new from what they were doing.  

Where I really felt the impact of that thing is when I was nominated for a Grammy for a remix that I did and the remix has a very long intro. When it was posted for people to be able to make their decisions–I think it's a minute of music or something that you can listen to, to make your determination; and the intro of my remix–just the intro–was more than 30 seconds long! [Laughs] So you're listening to this intro and there's no voice or no beat coming in, and that's the first time that I saw where long intros don't work in the streaming world. 

Tell us about Party/After-Party, the sound installation you designed. 

Kelly Kivland from the Dia Art Foundation in New York came to me with the idea of doing a music festival at the Dia Beacon in upstate New York and then it morphed into me creating a sound piece for them. It took a bit of time for me to figure out what I was going to do because I'm not a painter, you know, I'm not a visual artist in the typical sense. Kelly and I were sitting in the bar at Soho House in Manhattan, I was listening to the DJ playing in the bar, we were kind of making jokes, and then the Eureka moment happened–this is what the piece should be about, this is my life. 

Art, to me, is about putting your soul into it. AI doing art is not art to me – there's no soul that can go into it. So whether you create art with a pen or with a laser or whatever medium, there is soul that goes into it, and the soul, of course, comes from your experiences – that's the only thing that soul comes from. It comes from the trials and tribulations of life–whether you had a lot of girlfriends or all the girls hated you, whatever the case was. [Laughs] 

Party/After-Party is an amalgamation of my experiences: being on the road as a DJ; living with tinnitus; dealing with the loneliness that comes with being on the road; the angst and anxiety that you get from playing a set in front of 20,000 people, having all this nervous energy, and then you end up sitting in your hotel room doing nothing. [Laughs] So all those things came into play in the piece, which is a multi-channel, multi-speaker piece that has lights and sound.

Looking back, what are you most proud of in terms of your history?

That I've worked hard not to be pigeonholed in what I do creatively; if I was, I feel that musically I'd be less advanced, and my musical taste would be a lot different. I feel that people who make really great careers doing one thing, they will always go through what I consider a seven-year itch – they'll have seven years of great times, and then seven years where people just aren't interested. Humans like to discover things, so they love to rediscover talent–they don't have a problem with the talent going into poverty and having health problems and all that stuff, as long as they can rediscover them – then they feel good about it.  

There are aspects of my career that get rediscovered. I keep moving, but somebody that sees me playing a disco set at Glitterbox in Ibiza and does some research finds out that I also do jazz stuff, which they never knew before. That's the great thing about it – I really made efforts, early in my career, to not make music just to try to get famous, and do all the rock and roll things that people aspire to do. My inspiration was Quincy Jones and I patterned what I do – not formally, but casually – after what Quincy had done and the milestones that he was able to reach.

What are your plans for the future of your studio?

Changing the monitors is a big deal. Room tuning is also really important–it’s something I think a lot of people don't understand and one of the important aspects of getting the room tuned and everything being correct is that you can hear the notes better, because there are certain frequencies where notes will blur and disappear, like in the sub-range. So making sure that it's really specific and doing exactly what it should do is the goal now. I've been working with John Storyk’s company to do the room tuning and then, after I get that aspect sorted out, I'll change the monitoring system.

Andy CatlinInterested in purchasing gear for your studio? Contact a Vintage King Audio Consultant via email or by phone at 866.644.0160.