It was chance that led Whitefish resident Toby Scott to his career as Bruce Springsteen’s sound engineer in 1978. At the time, the owner of the Los Angeles studio where Scott worked as chief sound engineer was producing an album at another studio in New York City. One day, Bruce Springsteen’s producer walked across the hall from where he was working on Springsteen’s fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and asked for some engineering help. Scott’s boss said yes, but insisted the work be done at his L.A. studio. That’s where Scott got a chance to work on the album, and where he met The Boss for the first time.
“We got along,” Scott says of his relationship with Springsteen, adding, in his best Springsteen impression, “He’d say ‘Hey Toby, you want to go around the corner and get a burger with me?’”
But perhaps more importantly, Springsteen liked Scott’s work. That led to Scott mixing Springsteen’s The River album in 1980, and since then Scott has worked almost exclusively for Springsteen on 20 albums.
More recently, Scott became Whitefish musician Kyle Archer’s sound engineer and producer against his better judgment. Scott and Archer’s father, Jim, were friends. In early 2002 Jim asked Scott to come have a listen to the music Kyle was writing, singing and playing on his guitar. Kyle, at just 15, had expressed an interest in becoming a professional musician. His father wanted to know if his son’s musical ambition was something to encourage, or better left as a hobby.
“I didn’t particularly want to,” Scott says, “because if you express an opinion, as somebody in the business, people take it seriously.”
Scott didn’t want to be the one to crush anyone’s hopes.
But he reluctantly agreed to come over to the Archer house for dinner, and to hear Kyle’s music. Over dinner, he gave Kyle his “spiel” on how tough the business is, how few actually make it even after years of work. That didn’t discourage Kyle from pressing Scott to listen to just a few of his songs. Scott agreed, and was surprised by what he heard.
“The thing that was impressive about him,” Scott says now, “is that he wrote songs that you could recognize as songs.”
Most amateur songwriters, Scott says, don’t follow—and likely don’t know—the basic rules of songwriting.
“A lot just sort of write whatever they’re feeling,” he says. “[Kyle] was writing good songs, with verses and choruses, and they were relevant, not just love songs.”
He also thought Kyle’s songs were different from those written by most young people. “In Kyle’s songs, he’s not complaining, he’s not out to change the world, not ragging on some injustice,” Scott says.
Scott couldn’t resist getting involved. He encouraged Kyle to keep writing.
“Don’t be concerned whether you like them or not,” he told Kyle. “If you’re bored with a song, don’t worry. It’s gonna be new to someone else.”
Within a few months, Kyle was up from six songs to 16. Later the same year Scott helped Kyle record his song “Signs of Courage,” which he entered in a national contest sponsored by the PTA. The song took second place. Last year, Scott set up a recording session for Kyle at New York City’s The Hit Factory, which Scott describes as one of the best recording studios in the world. There, Kyle and four professional musicians rounded up by Scott recorded Addin’ Somethin’ In, Kyle’s first album.
Kyle, now 18, attends college at Chapman University in Orange County, Calif., where he’s managed to put together a backing band. After practicing a few months, Scott called a booking agent friend in Los Angeles to ask what he should be doing to get shows there. His friend told Archer his band should play open mics at the Highland Grounds coffee shop. They did, were soon invited back for full sets, and are now playing on a regular basis in L.A.
Scott says he and Kyle haven’t yet tried to go to record companies, but think that 2006 might be the year.
“He’s just an awesome guy,” Kyle says of Scott. “I’ve always wanted to do music, but Toby, with his experience and his connections, has really helped me out.”
Kyle’s story is just the best example of Scott’s impact in Whitefish. Three years ago he set up a small studio, Cabin Six, in a building he owns in downtown Whitefish. There, he’s helped Kyle and other local musicians record their work. He’s also lent the studio out to another local sound engineer, Dave Gawe, who does similar work for other local musicians.
Last year, Adam Pitman, a 26-year-old Whitefish native who was making a horror film called Roulette with his friends, ran into trouble when their sound engineer quit. He had heard about Scott and his willingness to help local artists, and gave him a call. Scott said he’d be interested, but initially he planned on just “touching up” the film’s audio.
“I ended up remixing all the dialogue for the entire movie,” he says. After that, he worked on the sound effects, music, and musical segues for the film as well. But, he says, Pitman did the final mix.
“He saved our butts,” says Pitman. “He saw some kids passionate about a film, and he got passionate about it, too.”
Pitman is now working on a second film, with Scott once again doing the sound engineering.
Scott’s work with Springsteen has kept him bouncing back and forth between New York City and Whitefish since he moved to Whitefish 15 years ago. He had intended to keep his hours in the Whitefish studio to a minimum, but finds that he’s working more than he intended.
“I like my job,” Scott says. “People ask me, ‘Do you have any hobbies?’ and I answer ‘recording music, and it just happens to be my job, too.’”
Scott has yet to accept any pay for his work in Whitefish, saying that no one he’s working with in Montana could afford to pay what Springsteen does.
He says he tells locals, “If you go and become rich and famous, pay me.”
Archer says he fully intends to do that.
As for his own future, Scott says he dreams about building a “destination studio” in Whitefish, a top-quality studio with lodging on the property where professional musicians can live while they record.
In the meantime, he plans to continue adding a professional touch to the sounds coming out of Whitefish.