For some musicians, entering a studio can be far more nerve-wracking than getting up on stage in front of strangers. But studio musicians are usually calmed by the quirk, the charisma, and the casual disposition of Jim Roll. In fact, he’s so easygoing I regret I failed to resist the pun of “Rolling with it…” to sum up his approach/philosophy. Roll has been recording music since the 80’s, operating his own studio in Ann Arbor for years before becoming the manager of Willis Sound in Ypsilanti.
The 52-year-old Roll was raised outside of Chicago and was actually on track to become a star football player at Augustana College in the late 70’s before deciding, instead, to fully embrace what had already been a lifelong love of music. He first picked up a guitar to pursue being a singer/songwriter, while also collecting any recording gear he could find so he could be his own producer. Eventually, recording other musicians became a way to pay for all the gear he’d amassed and Roll grew to become a go-to audio engineer for dozens (upon dozens!) of albums by bands in the local music scene.
For the love of the music
“I’m personally surprised at myself, each time, with how much I can fall in love with each project,” says Roll. “I’m glad I do too, because otherwise it’d be a sham. I mean, why can I listen to a song 100 times in a row for four hours while I’m mixing it? I’m sort of in a battle with myself to make (everything) sound better, or just make a song come together. I mean, I’m talking about it like I know what I’m doing; I’m really just jumping in the boat with each band and we row like crazy…”
“But when you jump in, do you ever realize you’re not the Captain?”
The above question comes from Matt Jones, who joined our interview at The Tap Room in Ypsi. Jones manages The River Street Anthology project and has frequently recorded with Roll. To his query, Roll replies, “(The audio engineer) can’t be the captain … I never call myself a ‘producer.’ I’m a major support factor. I try to be a guide. And even outside the studio I want to guide people when they’re having any kind of trouble. So that’s my ‘producer-role,’ it’s helping them through loopholes: musical and emotional loopholes.”
Roll wears many hats. 1.) Family man. 2.) Audio engineer. 3.) Solo Artist (his latest, Continuing Adventures of the Butterfly Kid, came out in late 2016). 4.) Bassist for Misty Lyn & The Big Beautiful, among other collaborations. 5.) Teacher (of audio recording technology classes at Washtenaw Community College). 6.) Cubs fan. 7.) Host of the “Life Master: Master Series,” producing/editing and starring in videos that showcase his notable talents for improv-comedy.
“(The Life Master) videos are, for the first time with anything I’ve ever done, where it feels like 100% who I am, or at least that this is what I think is funny. I’m such an improviser. I do not prepare,” Roll says. He self-consciously pauses to ask Jones whether or not his comment sounds too supercilious. Jones shakes his head. “The secret, if I have a secret,” Roll continues, “is that I don’t prepare. I’m fearless once I’m in the room (with a band) and I stick with it.”
Roll attained his Masters in social work from U-M in the early 90’s and half-jokes that it was comparatively more vital to his work as an audio engineer than becoming a gear wizard. “I’m there to help (bands) cope with (being in a studio),” he explains. “That’s almost what I’m best at. I let (musicians) know what’s normal. And then I feed them enthusiasm!”