Thai Long Ly is Famous

Our favorite freelance friend-of-MO, widely known for his stream-of-conscious verbalizing, print motojournalism stylings and bass playing, has just been profiled in VoyageLA. Yes, that VoyageLA. He’s a heavy cat, man. But we already knew that.

Meet Thai Long Ly of Bell Sound Studios

Today we’d like to introduce you to Thai Long Ly.

Thai Long, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I started playing bass guitar at age 12 and fell in love with the idea of doing nothing but music for the rest of my life. That combined with my penchant for sleeping in and staying up all night meant that a normal job would never cut it. So I made it my life’s mission to steer clear of one at all costs! I played in a host of bands growing up, and when I realized my boat to stardom had sprung a slow leak, I seized an opportunity to open a high-end bass guitar boutique called L.A. Bass Exchange (Tarzana, CA) when I was 25. This was a way to stay surrounded by the things I loved as well as to be my own boss. Steady money helped, too. I had just been dumped by my girlfriend and had lost my job at another music store when this happened, so the motivation to succeed was at an all time high for me.  They say success is the best revenge, right?

I ran that shop for five crazy fun years before a shady move by a partner combined with a growing recession forced its demise. So, as I stood at yet another crossroad in life, I decided to jump back into that leaky boat to see how far I could sail it. It was scary to be starting over at age 30, yet I was determined to succeed and frankly, too stubborn to fail. And somehow, along the way, I found myself touring the world with some great bands as both an engineer and performer. Where I experienced beautiful people and interesting places – things I would never had seen, felt and heard any other way.  The bonds and memories you make with your fellow bandmates while touring the earth last a lifetime and perhaps is the best part of it all.

Around 2004, I found myself working on an album alongside the great Al McKay, legendary guitarist for Earth Wind and Fire. I even had a key to his house where I’d show up every day to work in his studio and man, did we have a blast! I co-wrote, co-produced, played bass and engineered dozens of tracks over the course of a couple years and those invaluable lessons I learned then are ingrained in me to this day. I was actually being paid to be in “groove” school! Eventually, life and growing schedules intervened, and we never did complete the project. Though, every time we speak we threaten to revisit the material, so maybe someone other than me, Al and his dogs will hear the songs some day after all!

Another pivotal moment for me was when I met Erik Zobler, the multi-Grammy-winning engineer who would become my mentor. Jazz bassist Christian McBride was in town and had invited me over to George Duke’s Le Gonks Studio, as George was about to track a new record (Face The Music, 2002) and Christian would play on a couple of cuts. Erik was George’s longtime engineer, and we became friends that day.

At some point throughout the session, Erik recognized that we were the same kind of coconut and I stayed well into the night. I was so jazzed to be there watching all this amazing music go down; little did I know this evening would change the course of my career. From that day on, Erik took this hungry, fledgling, amateur engineer under his wing and taught me how to listen like a pro. He instilled confidence and an approach to being a professional that I so sorely needed.  His encouragement and constant belief in me and my abilities is why I’m here today.

In late 2011, an exciting opportunity came along that was too good to pass up. The legendary Bell Sound Studios (Los Angeles) had a rare and coveted opening in their heralded “A Room,” and I immediately jumped at the chance and moved in. I had already amassed a nice collection of recording gear for my home studio, where I had been honing my production and engineering chops for years, so the transition was quite easy. I had to give up often working in just my underwear, but the idea of not having bands traipsing through my living room at all hours of the night was appealing to me – aside from the fact that the acoustics in that studio were simply stunning!

So I’ve been bolted to the floor at Bell Sound for over seven years now, though my relationships with owners John Osiecki and Don Piestrup has spanned nearly 17. John is an accomplished engineer with over 45 years experience and his continued support over the course of my career cannot be overstated. Don was an unbelievable writer and composer in his day and you’ve certainly heard his work – but just never knew it.  I’m honored and grateful each and every time I step foot into this amazing studio, and I try my level best to make them proud with every recording I touch.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been branching out into the film and television side of things as well, and find that I really enjoy the creative challenges that occupy those worlds. So between working with some of LA’s finest musicians, I’m working with some of the finer names in acting, too. I find mixing a film or television project is similar to a record in that emotion is pivotal to conveying an idea and an artistic approach is coveted far above and beyond just the technical. In addition, every session and project is different from the previous – and I love that variety!

And for the record, I’d like to state that I owe everything to my mentors, who’ve helped shaped my musical, artistic and technical thinking as I continue to formulate and shape my approach to all things creative. Incredible talents that include Erik Zobler, Al McKay, Gary Chang, Eleanor Academia and more recently, Dennis Kirk.

So this is where you’ll find me to this day. When I’m not out riding my motorcycle or practicing photography, that is.

Which leads me to my side gig as a moto-journalist and bike/product tester for the esteemed where I’m, get this, a published writer! I actually get paid to ride and write about motorcycles… dig that! I don’t possess a journalism degree and the majority of my lexicon consists of four letter words, but incredibly, there I am.  On top of that, some of my photography has been displayed at a small gallery, and several other images have been used in publications and print. My camera has long been a passion that now periodically rewards me with the occasional paycheck – the ultimate in encouragement I suppose.  I’m not sure how, but I guess I’ve managed to turn my hobbies into careers. For this I am truly blessed.  Now if I could only stop three-putting on the greens, I’d have a shot at the PGA!

Has it been a smooth road?
Hardly. Anyone who finds a road smooth in the music business is either incredibly lucky or incredibly high! It’s an industry where talent doesn’t equal financial success; some of the most financially successful musicians I know are the least accomplished, yet many of the most talented are struggling to make ends meet.  I truly consider anyone past age 30 making music as a sole source of income in this environment a bonafide success.

Aside from all that, try being Asian and NOT being a doctor. Go ahead. I’ll wait! Not that my parents weren’t supportive, but it was always with a “well ok for now, but when you turn 30, you’ll get a real job”, followed by a “well, when you turn 40 you’ll get a real job”, followed by “well… you’ll never find a wife that wants to marry a musician”!

Music wasn’t considered a legitimate way to earn a living in my family, especially if it wasn’t expressed in the form of a violin or piano. A bass guitar? Oh hell no! It’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older and they’ve pretty much given up trying to veer me off course. After all, it’s the life that chose me and I’m too damn stubborn anyway. That and they now have a better understanding of what it is I actually do and who I do it with.  But most importantly, the love between us is undeniably strong. That’s all I really care about when it comes to it and I can handle the rest of the noise.

With that said, I totally understand their position, and it’s a conversation I’ll have with my daughter one day. If she decides she wants to be in entertainment, I’ll equip her with knowledge and experience I’ve garnered throughout my personal journey. She’s still really young, so I still have a while to go. I’ll support and encourage her no matter what, but I won’t be too upset if she decides to go into medicine one day!

In addition, after the demise of my retail store, I found myself without an identity. I was known in my immediate world as something – as someone recognizable in my industry. I was young and I needed that validation. And there I was, no longer in the position that I worked so hard to sustain and maintain. I was dejected, pissed off and eventually, broke. I sold off all of my possessions, blew through my savings and filed for bankruptcy. All around the age of 30. I had to reinvent myself and start over with no winning lottery ticket or sugar mama in sight.

This was around 2001… the year I tragically lost five people dear to me, including my father, grandfather and a close friend. All within a six month period… I felt like the harbinger of death. This combined with the loss of the business really forced me to figure out what it is I wanted to do with my life, and who I wanted to do it with. Hence, the decision to concentrate solely on being the best Producer and Engineer I could be. I made peace with that decision, picked myself up off the floor, and committed myself to reinventing my daily existence. The rest is history, as they say.

We’d love to hear more about what you do.
I’m an independent music producer and audio engineer working in music, film and television. Those qualifications alone hardly make me unique in this town, but I do feel I have an advantage over many in that I received a proper recording education through invaluable mentorships and hands-on assisting on high-level sessions. I didn’t learn in a crowded classroom with a high student to teacher ratio; where you’re taught limited skills that may not bear fruit in the real world.

I learned by “being in the room” when it all went down, as an assistant when legendary musicians were in the midst of creating their vital art. I am old enough to have worked with 2″ analog tape, while still young enough to have embraced the digital revolution when it arrived. This means I know what good sound is supposed to sound like and my benchmarks are set high. I also received the technical knowledge to get there… to create or capture any sound that’s limited only by my lack of imagination.

You can’t swing a wet cat in this town without hitting a recording studio be it large or small, but how do you pick one? For me, quality gear is certainly important, but they’re merely tools that are only as effective as the person using them. The whole “Indian, not the arrow” thing. My mentors drilled the fundamentals of sound and acoustics into me as well as how to approach the creative process. I got to hear first hand how music is supposed to hit you when someone eventually presses “play”, and how to transport the listener into the sonic space you’ve created while maintaining their attention during the entire performance.

As a tracking engineer, I was taught where to place a microphone and more importantly, why. As a mixer, I was taught about balance and shading. Soundstage and depth. As a producer, I was taught about emotion and vulnerability. Tension and release. As a songwriter, I was taught about story and arc. Characters and attachment.

Most importantly, I learned how to respectfully treat musicians and artists; how to work with them to extract and capture lightning in a bottle – all while having fun. Creating music is as much about emotion and comfort as it is about the technical. I learned how to run a session in an efficient manner and how to create the best kind of client – the kind that keeps coming back. These aren’t secrets in isolation, but how one puts it all together is what keeps my cabbage rolling after all these years!

As a post-production Re-Recording Mixer, I bring everything I’ve learned in nearly 20 years of music production to each and every project. It’s a new challenge for me; one that I’m really digging and craving. There’s a lot to learn, which is part of the appeal I suppose.  For now, I’ll wear both socks (film and music) on each foot for as long as I can!

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Growing up I knew that if I wanted a career in music, I’d either have to live in New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville. New York was either too frigid or sweaty, and Tennessee was just too “country”, despite having grown up in both South Carolina and Virginia. LA has that perfect weather, the beach, the mountains and is the epicenter of all things entertainment. Plus, I can ride year round. It was an easy choice.

Granted, the industry has changed considerably since my arrival in 1992, but I still think this is the place to be if you want to be working at the highest level. Not that I couldn’t make my way in some other parts of the country, but the talent pool here is so deep it makes your head spin. I’m constantly amazed by the “unknown” monsters I encounter in my studio time and time again. And it makes sense, right? The biggest fish in the smallest ponds all make their way to LA to swim this gigantic ocean. Anyone with a modicum of talent and a skull full of dreams eventually makes the journey west at some point it seems.

Whenever someone asks me about starting a career in this industry, I tell them they must be crazy. The crazier, the better! You can’t take yourself too seriously, or you’ll end up bruised and damaged. This town isn’t for everyone, but if you believe in yourself, do good work with a positive attitude, you just may find there’s no better place to be! As for where I’ll be in 10 years, who knows? If it were up to me, behind a console mixing a feature film, tracking world class talent for a kick-ass record, riding a motorcycle around a track or in the mountains, taking pictures of beautiful things and beings, and stuffing my face full of good food surrounded by loved ones. In other words, exactly what I’ve been doing all week!

Here are some current artists I’ve recently completed projects with: Sarah Reich, Buel, Postmodern Jukebox, Hadrien Feraud, David Garfield, Ginny Luke.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Evans Brasfield

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