Zoe Thrall is a groundbreaker and a legend with 40+ years working in the music industry. She spent years working as an engineer and studio manager for Power Station Studios and Hit Factory Studios in NYC, then touring with Steven Van Zandt and his band, The Disciples of Soul. In 2005, she relocated to Las Vegas taking over the reins at The Palms Studio until it was shuttered due to COVID. Zoe has moved to The Hideout as the Director of Studio Operations, where artists from Carlos Santana to Kendrick Lamar have recorded. Zoe is an artist, engineer, and is well versed in studio management.
Zoe was introduced to audio as a career path while a freshman in college, (State University of New York at Fredonia) where she had a friend who was majoring in audio engineering. She applied to the music department and then transferred to audio. While she attended all four years, she was offered a job in her fourth year and never finished her last eight credits.
Zoe was always interested in audio, she remembers as a kid “tinkering with my cassette machines and my records taking two tape machines and recording from one to the other.” Her parents loved music and she was exposed to all kinds of music growing up from pop standards to Broadway. At age eight Zoe says “I tried to learn any instrument I could get my hands on. Turns out I was best on woodwind instruments and pursued learning them more seriously.” As we will learn woodwind instruments led her to record with Steven Van Zandt.
Working with Steven Van Zandt
Zoe was working at a studio as an assistant engineer that Steven was working on several albums he was producing, as well as his first solo album. Zoe remembers that he was looking for a specific sound, and his guitar tech mentioned that she played oboe and she ended up on the record. After the record was finished Steven asked her to go on the road. She was 22 years old and says “that was not something I ever considered.” Zoe would continue to work with Steven for eleven years, playing on and engineering several albums. Zoe says “I learned everything about the business from Steven, about music production and contracts and publishing. Steven was extremely politically active and so I also got involved in a number of social and political organizations, mostly in human rights. I got to see that side of the world and meet Nelson Mandela. It was a whirlwind of 11 years and something I never dreamed of doing in terms of touring and being a member of a band.”
“Having a mentor like Steven was absolutely critical in my professional growth. He would push me to do things that I would never thought I could do, but he trusted I could and that gave me the confidence to try. There were so many invaluable lessons. He would push me as a musician (playing keyboards on a Peter Gabriel track), as an engineer (building a home studio and recording his projects there), as a manager (rehearsing, hiring/firing band members), and even in the political arena where I was least comfortable. One time he sent me to meet with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the representative of our foundation, The Solidarity Foundation. I was scared to death. But I was able to discuss some of the programs we had instituted in the anti-apartheid movement. These are just a few examples of what could get thrown at me at any given time”.
Zoe has been recognized for both her work and her humanitarian efforts including planning and co-organizing a fundraiser for Nelson Mandela, receiving a commendation from the United Nations for work done in the anti-apartheid movement, and serving 3 times as co-chair of 2005, 2006, and 2021 Conventions of the Audio Engineering Society.
How did your early internships or jobs help build a foundation for where you are now?
The internship was essential to my growth and my future. It introduced me to some extremely talented engineers and producers who were my early mentors. That specific internship led to every other door that opened for me. 11 years later I was back as that studio’s manager.
What did you learn interning or on your early gigs?
Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Let a helping hand anywhere you can. Put in as much time as you can and someone will notice. Be honest, don’t try and do something you don’t know how to do (then learn how to do it later). Be willing to do everything and anything asked of you (to a degree). Don’t count the hours.
Did you have a mentor or someone that really helped you?
Initially, as I stated above I was fortunate to have been around some pretty talented (and tolerant) people from day one like Bob Clearmountain, Neil Dorfsman, James Farber, Tony Bongiovi. But really my main mentor is Steven Van Zandt and then eventually worked with him for 11 years. Everything I know about the music/recording industry I learned from him.
What is a typical day like?
You have to wear a lot of hats managing a commercial recording studio. I’m the first one to come in the morning because I like to check the rooms and the rest of the facility before anyone gets here. Then I make sure we have everything we need for the sessions coming in. I keep an eye on when the staff is arriving to make sure they get here on time for their sessions. I book studio time and negotiate the deals with the clients. I review the sessions from the previous day and do the billing. As the day goes on I will check with the clients to see how their sessions are running. Then mid-day I will look to see what the next few days are bringing us to be sure we are prepared for them. There are many phone calls, overseeing staff, vendors, etc.
How do you stay organized and focused?
I write everything down. People make fun of me for it but if I write it down I won’t forget something. There are so many details that come at you during the day I couldn’t possibly remember everything.
What do you enjoy the most about your job?
Even though I no longer engineer I still love gear and the recording process. I love music makers. I love creativity.
What do you like least?
Clients that expect to sound like Drake in three hours. Their expectations are not realistic. Also, the 24 hours, 7-days-a-week aspect of it.
If you tour, what do you like best?
I did tour when I was younger. It’s really hard but exhilarating at the same time. It’s an easy way to see the world. I loved learning about different cultures. The feeling you get just before you step on the stage is something I’ve never felt doing anything else, whether it was to an audience of 200 or 100,000.