Few have shaped Orlando's recorded rock sound as much as Jon Marshall Smith. Check the liner notes on those favorite local CDs and you'll probably find him credited as the recording's producer, mixer or masterer. Hear his midas touch on Kow's 12, Gargamel!'s "Touch My Fun!," Bughead's "Whole Lotta Puddin'," as well as on the debuts from Junkie Rush, Precious, Princeton's Guff and Mercy Machine. The Full Sail success story even helped develop Orlando's chart-topping pop campaign: He engineered demos for both 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys.
A resident of New York City since 1995, the 31-year-old is a bona fide rising star in the industry, having worked alongside megaproducers Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix) and Daniel Ray (Helmet, The Ramones). His most recent triumph is the posthumously released Joey Ramone solo album.
Smith also "dabbles" in software development. Through his company, JMS Audioware, he creates and sells plug-ins for DirectX-compatible music software for PC-based computer systems.
But even with his heavy workload and ventures into software, Smith continues to produce, mix and master recordings for Orlando-based groups. Time and again, his cut-rate session work has boosted the quality of recorded works by local acts. Currently on his plate: new projects from Gargamel!, Bughead and Terri Binion's long-awaited followup to 1996's "Leavin' This Town."
"Plane tickets, a nominal fee and talent will get me down there to make a record every time. ... I've just been a big fan of the Orlando scene for so long."
In town, Smith rolls virtual tape at David Schweizer's Richter Studios, his favorite place to record here, besides Full Sail's A Room. Although it is still his preference to record bands in the old-school analog realm using expensive gear, Smith can record bands less expensively and on a custom-fit schedule, thanks to the digital revolution. "It's the great enabler," he says. "It works out quite well, a nice advantage of things moving into computer land."
Born in Greenville, N.C., Smith grew up in Washington, D.C., where he played keyboard in area bands. At age 21, he moved south to attend Full Sail, where he studied the art of making records, cutting his teeth on the school's state-of-the-art equipment. After graduating, he immediately found work cutting demos for then-unknown pop group Backstreet Boys, the beginning of what became five years of nonstop 80-hour work weeks.
"It was my first engineering gig ever and I used to come home every night listening to what I'd done and be like, Why am I making this pop crap?" recalls Smith. "But it was a gig, and it was cool to actually be getting a paycheck for playing with audio gear. ... I was basically sneaking all of the cool rock bands in after hours to try to do some cool stuff, and paying my rent with Backstreet dollars. Very strange time. I think we snuck Bughead in there ... `and` Tabitha's Secret."
For two years, he ran Powerhouse Studios, before heading to the Big Apple. "I thought I was a pretty good engineer when I moved away from Florida, but my first four sessions I sat in New York, it was like, Oh my god, I suck, there's so much to learn."
In New York, he works on mostly national-caliber punk, loud rock and Americana projects by the likes of Richard Buckner and Speedealer. "I'm sure there is a functional local scene in New York, but I'm pretty insulated from it, I guess. Everything I work on is national, but it's like mostly smaller national. A lot of indie stuff. But everyone here thinks nationally, you know; no one puts out local releases."
He's also becoming increasingly busy as a mastering engineer. Mastering is the final step in the audio-production ladder before bringing a record to market.
"It totally came out of being upset -- doing really cheap, low-budget records and then having them mastered by someone who was also cheap, and just getting destroyed in the mastering," says Smith.
So far, the high point was working on the new Ronnie Spector record. "Keith Richards played on a few tracks," smiles Smith. "Leaving that session was kind of like, well, it's all downhill from here."
Good-natured and prone to laughter, Smith is probably the right type of person to handle working with finicky artists. Take alterna-rock wonders The Breeders, for instance. During a session, bandleader Kim Deal spent an entire day tweaking the click track (an electronic metronome) -- not the tempo of it, mind you, but the sound of the beep.
The three-year project for Joey Ramone, the former lead singer for punk-rock legends The Ramones, was far easier going. Ramone finished recording "Don't Worry About Me" just before his death shocked leather-jacketed fans earlier this year. The Sanctuary Records CD came out Feb. 19.
"It was slow-going because he was ill. We took a lot of breaks," says Smith, who acted as recording and mixing engineer alongside Ray, the producer who was affectionately dubbed the "fifth Ramone." Smith has been Ray's engineer for more than three-and-a-half years.
Smith feared the recording would be too depressing to finish. But it turned out to be great fun, and he and Ray were "superconfident" that Joey would have loved it. "It kind of felt like he was there with us."
As for his software sideline, what started out as a way to kill time has turned into an obsession. "As soon as I marketed the first one, I was ... surprised with the response and realized that I can actually make money doing it," says Smith, who sells the plug-ins on his site (jms-audioware.com). The only one you can't get your hands on is his compressor.
"It's kind of my secret weapon," says Smith. "I use it on everything. Most of the records I mix at home I'll use almost exclusively my own processing, which is kind of a neat thing."
Smith's signature contributions have made records like "Kow"'s 12 -- recorded and mixed by Smith and the band at Full Sail in two 12-hour sessions -- landmark local releases. Those songs are just a few that he punches, without fail, on the jukebox at Will's Pub, his favorite in-town watering hole. He says playing the music gives him "a warm, fuzzy feeling."
He's not the only one.