John Campos: music leads him to a sound career

by Kaye Bennett

Photo of John Campos.John Campos has seen massive changes in the recording industry and its technology during his 25 years as director of Western Michigan University’s sound studio.

“Things the Beatles could only have dreamed of,” he says, “are now available for free to anybody with a laptop computer.”

But while there’s a definite role for it, that laptop will never produce the sound that Campos and other professional sound engineers can. The reason is not just the equipment, but the education and experience and, yes, the instinct. Here’s how John Campos developed all of the above.

As a result of the Spanish civil war, his parents, José Luis Campos and Margarita Costero, emigrated from Spain to Mexico, where they met and married. In Mexico, José Luis trained to be a physician, then came to the United States to specialize in radiation-oncology. He and Margarita moved to Ann Arbor in 1962, and that’s where their son John, their third child, was born and would spend the first 11 years of his life.

In 1974, Dr. Campos came to Kalamazoo to go into private practice, and his wife became a Spanish teacher, first at Hackett Catholic Central High School, then at WMU, and finally at Kalamazoo College. Both are retired now.

The Campos family was a busy one. All six of the Campos children were musical. John’s instrument was the violin, and his family found a superb instructor for him: Barry Ross, at that time professor of music at Kalamazoo College and concertmaster of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Campos says that Ross “... was kind enough to take a not particularly dedicated student at the time.” 

Though he loved to play music, Campos didn’t want to make that his career. “I knew I didn’t want to travel and play for a living,” he says. “As a kid, all I wanted to do was listen to records.”

A self-admitted underachiever as a youngster, Campos was passionate about vinyl records. “As a kid, all I wanted to do was listen to records. I have a soft spot in my heart for all the kids who didn’t perform well in high school.”

When Campos discovered that he could learn how to make records for a living and major in the subject closest to his heart, his academic career turned around.

After graduating from Loy Norrix High School in 1980, Campos attended WMU for two years, then started searching for a school where he could get a degree in audio engineering. 

At the time, there were only a handful of schools in the country that offered such programs. Campos chose Berklee College of Music, in Boston. His bachelor’s degree would be in music, with a concentration in violin, but his major was music production and engineering.

“Berklee was a great place for me,” says Campos. He had excellent teachers and “dove deep into audio.” The underperforming kid had found his niche: In 1986, Campos graduated from Berklee summa cum laude. Campos’ first job after Berklee was in Chicago. He applied for a staff position at Streeterville Studios, which had more than 500 resumes on file and was not hiring.

But Campos met with Streeterville’s chief engineer, chatted for hours and was offered a job — a job that turned out to be, says Campos, “great training, but unsatisfying musically.”

For the next year he spent at least 80 hours a week recording mostly television and radio jingles, but not much music. “I had no desire to spend my life making Montgomery Ward spots,” he says.

Enter, once again, Barry Ross.

WMU’s School of Music needed a sound engineer, Ross told Campos’ mother. Why didn’t John apply for the job?

Campos did, immediately. He interviewed, was hired and found himself the sole employee of a department that didn’t yet exist. The sound studio had only been open for two years, then had been closed for two years. It didn’t have much equipment — a real deficit in a sound studio. “It needed to be built from the ground up,” says Campos.

And, oh yes, as part of the job, WMU would also need Campos to teach classes in audio engineering and production. That was a surprise, as Campos had never seen himself as a teacher. “It’s not what I came here to do,” he says, “but it’s my favorite part.”

He teaches a sequence of four classes and has had the opportunity to develop the audio-production program and “work with passionate people who feel the same way I do about records.” Campos also reports that many of his closest friends today are former students and that people he’s met through the classes he teaches are employed in all phases of music, from bands to studios to film companies.

The department that has developed since Campos was hired back in 1987 — which now includes office manager and staff engineer Bryan Heany (“a treasure,” says Campos) and a handful of student workers — is self-sustaining.

With no University funding, the unit covers its annual operating budget of about $35,000 by charging the performers it records. In addition to such WMU-based performers as the University Symphonic Band, Chorale, marching band, Gold Company, faculty members and students, the department provides its services to local bands and local venues.

Recording musicians can be challenging. For one thing, says Campos, “the hours are crazy.” Most musicians don’t want to work in the morning, so the audio engineer’s days often start late and may not end until 3 a.m. Another challenge is the outrageous requests performers may make — ranging from what they want to wear to what they want to drink — while they are being recorded.

Among the hardest to deal with, says violin major Campos, are the string players.

“Violinists are notoriously cranky if they have to wear headsets,” he says.

However, the engineer’s job is to put performers at ease. “The studio is intimidating,” says Campos, “and most performers don’t get that many chances to be in a studio.”

Campos says that some performers thrive in the recording studio while others never take to it. To be a good studio musician, an artist needs a lot of practice there. The stress for many of them, says Campos, is that the recording doesn’t disappear. Anything that happens on the concert stage — good or bad — is over in an instant; the permanence of a recording is intimidating for many musicians. That permanence and the retrievability of recordings have been profoundly enhanced by the changes in sound-engineering technology that John Campos has seen over the past decades.

“In the late 1980s,” says Campos, “it was nearly impossible to record yourself. Now, high-quality recording gear is available for a few hundred dollars.”

That, he warns, can be a good thing or a bad thing. Campos says he advises musicians to invest those few hundred dollars and record themselves because it’s important that they hear what they sound like.

But, on the downside, he says, “it’s wiping out sound studios.” And it’s the trained and experienced sound recordists, working on studio equipment, that provide the top-quality recordings that good musicians want and listeners deserve.

“I tell my students that if they want to do (sound recording) professionally, they need to provide sound and service better than the clients can do themselves. There is no way around the study and the hours that go into developing that skill,” Campos says.

Part of the skill is knowing just when to use the magic of digital technology and when to back off. People have so many options, Campos says, that they’re likely to make poor choices, such as using too much instrumentation or over-editing. He tells students, “Just because you have a roomful of tools, you shouldn’t brush your teeth with a power drill.” When amateur engineers try to fix problems with a computer, “it can end up sounding like a machine.”

 In the old days of analog recording, people tried to perfect their recordings by getting the best musicians available. “What made Motown sound fantastic was, in large part, the magical rhythm section,” Campos says. The ideal recording, he says, is a blend of appropriate technology and the best musicians. What makes a string section in an orchestra sound full and rich is not perfection in that every instrument sounds just alike, but “the micro differences in intonation.”

“That’s what makes it sound great,” says Campos.

Campos’ own musicianship has not been limited to the violin. He started playing mandolin when high school friends wanted to start a bluegrass band. It was an easy transition for a kid who’d long studied violin and the beginning of a relationship with the instrument that Campos plays today in the popular local acoustic group The Corn Fed Girls.

After college, Campos says, he was so busy with his production career that he didn’t play a note for 12 years. He was devoting himself to getting the WMU sound studio up and rolling, but “it was a shame for my music.”

At long last, however, Campos returned to the strings, working with friends to start first the Sun Dog band, then King Strang. Campos describes his return to performing as “super-satisfying” and says that fellow band members were patient with him as he got back into the swing of making music rather than recording it. He found still another creative outlet in writing songs.

These days, Campos’ home on Short Road is filled with music. His three children are all musical: Elena, 23, studied drums, and Mary, 21, piano, and 7-year-old Rafael plays guitar. In addition, Campos’ musician friends often join in for house concerts and music-playing parties. Campos says the parties were the brainchild of his ex-wife, Mechele Peters. They were a magnificent idea, he says, because “if you want to be among a creative community of people, you need to foster it.”

There is no shortage of talent in the local creative community, says Campos. Best of all, he says, is the lack of competitiveness among musicians. “Everyone wants to help each other out with projects.”

By shunning television and video games, Campos manages to find time to do some gardening and canning the produce that results. “The woods and my garden are a source of endless inspiration.”

But most of Campos’ life still revolves around music — making it, writing it and recording it. He describes his goal in life: “I want to play music I believe in with people I believe in at places where I want to play.” He’s content that he’s found and helped build a community of musicians who share that dream.