Magrudergrind. Noisem. Mutilation Rites. Full of Hell. Mortals. Trenchfoot. Pianos Become the Teeth. That’s a client list full of dirty effin’ bands if I’ve ever seen one. And they’ve all passed through Developing Nations Recording Studio, the Baltimore-based tracking and mixing studio owned and operated by a brotha named Kevin Bernsten.
If you’re inclined to buy albums that include liner notes, or use Google search, you can often find out the technicians who twiddled the gizmo dials on your favorite albums. It’s interesting – while to a certain extent, its kind of random whether a band will get “picked” to become popular or Considered a Great Artist, that kind of randomness doesn’t really happen with engineers. Either you make cool sounding records for cool bands that in turn attract other cool bands, or you don’t. As I noticed the Developing Nations moniker appearing more and more in the credits line of some of my favorite records of Modern Times – Empyrean and Agony Defined especially – and that those records all sounded real killer, I was surprised that people weren’t talking about Kevin more as one of the top dudes in the metal production game.
So I caught up with him on the phone to talk shop after a Friday night session. Our conversation covered a lot of topics typical of these kinds of interviews – how to make human-sounding recordings in a world run by robots, telling bands to practice before booking studio time, letting it go when you hit a wrong note in a guitar solo, Which Plugins Really Do Sound like Real Gear, you know the deal.
What was most exciting, though, were the bits where we ruminated over the changing role of recording engineers in niche music genres like heavy metal, now that we are a few years removed from the collapse of big album budgets and the rise of laptop recording. It’s a topic that I think has escaped a lot of the conversation surrounding the rise of the top cadre of metal engineers – and here I mean people like Matt Bayles, Colin Marston, Steve Evetts, Kurt Ballou, etc. etc. – who are able to run their own studios, and generally record artists they are excited to work with, without needing to cater to a bigger studio system. Kevin is in the company of these guys.
How long has Developing Nations been operational, and where were you before? What’s the background on your engineering history?
I started recording my own band’s demos when we were still in high school. I was like 15. The drummer in my band, his dad bought him one of the Roland digital 8-tracks, like a VS-880. We had a Fostex 4-track cassette thing before that, then we got this 8 track and we were like “Oh my god this is amazing”, and we just, you know, recorded stuff all the time. And then from there, I convinced my parents to send me to recording school, which was worthless. And then from there I started recording bands’ demos.
I’ve been in the studio I’m in now for about five years, and I was recording out of my basement as a job for about two years before that. So its been a while.
What kind of set-up are you running?
I have an Otari 24-track MX-80, it’s a 2-inch 24 track. It’s awesome, and I love working on it, and it sounds great. I have an Auditronix 501 console, which has an EQ that Brad Boatright just got recently, that he was asking me about, which I told him “get it, get it, get it! If I didn’t already have 26 of those, I’d be buying it.” The console sounds awesome and I fucking love it. And I’ve got a rack of outboard gear and I’ve got a computer and its got some old, outdated version of Pro Tools on it. I think its Pro Tools 9. I’m not even sure [laughs]. It works.
Some people forget that recording studios don’t just exist, and that studio owners have had to move into spaces and build them up. Did you build Developing Nations yourself, or did you move into a space that was already treated? How did you go from recording bands in your basement to owning a space?
That’s pretty much exactly how it happened: all of a sudden I got a studio. I was looking for a studio with a guy who I originally opened my studio with and kinda gave up, because we found a place that I just thought was too expensive and I kinda backed out. I had a couple friends with studios and I figured, I can track bands at their nice studios and do the rest at my house. My basement studio had like, lower than seven-foot ceilings, it was miserable… I was quickly outgrowing it, I was trying to get out of there. A friend of mine basically told me about this studio, which was owned by an advertising firm that had moved out of the building – but they had built this crazy recording studio on the top floor of their building. I think they were just trying to, you know, “if you build it they will come,” or something. They used it for voiceovers, and commercials and stuff. It’s built for tracking a band, its got a 32-input mic panel and 3 ISO booths, but they didn’t use it for that. I moved in to a fully built studio, and it was awesome, and I didn’t spend a penny, and it was great.
That is so cool.
I wish, now that I’ve been here for five years… there’s so many things that I can’t stand about the place. My control room is tiny – fitting a band of five people plus me in it is like, near impossible. And that’s my biggest complaint. I’d always love to have a bigger live room but I would’ve taken a few feet smaller in one dimension of my life room to have a few feet bigger in my control room. It’ll be cool to build my new studio, which I’ve finally started on.
That’s in the same space?
Different part of the city, different neighborhood. I just bought a building – two buildings, actually, that are connected, and I’m building a studio. So that’ll be a lot of fun, and terrible, and stressful, and expensive.
It’s not possible to be an engineer without having handyman skills, is it?
I don’t know if that’s necessarily true… if you can build your own gobos or bass traps or absorbers or whatever then that’s a huge plus, because that shit is expensive. Being able to solder is, like, a huge huge huge benefit to any recording studio. Your guitar breaks halfway through tracking, suddenly its cutting in an out, then you can open it up, find the bad connection and solder it. You have a stack of broken XLR cables that you’ve accumulated and you’ve got a couple days off, you can just go through and solder them and save yourself a few hundred bucks of buying new cables. Or, if you get really into it, and you learn how to troubleshoot a broken piece of gear, you can save on tech bills or [even] save a session if a tube blows up in an amp. It’s great to be able to not have to re-track all the guitars, or try to find that amp and dial it in the same, and have half the record sound different, than if you can take an hour or two and fix it, and then just keep rolling. I think it’s definitely not a must, but definitely a very good thing to know.
I’m curious if those skills will be lost on the next generation of engineers, who grow up using iPhones and other technology that doesn’t require you to work at making it work.
Most people have to seek out those skills. As a kid, when my guitar broke, my parents lived forty minutes outside of Baltimore. I would be a fifteen year old kid with a broken guitar, and I didn’t have any money to drive forty minutes to the closest city to get it fixed, and then wait two weeks, and then pay some dude a hundred or more dollars. So I figured – my mom does stained glass, she has this crazy bulky soldering iron that’s gonna burn anything it touches. I can re-solder this wire! And that’s how I learned, on the crazies soldering iron ever. It made my soldering skills awesome. I’m kind of like a tech-y dude to begin with, so I would just take a lot of time out to fix a thing, because I didn’t have a lot of money and I had all the time in the world because I lived in the middle of nowhere.
I had the pleasure of meeting an old-school engineer, Terry Manning, [Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Joe Cocker, Joe Walsh, the Staple Singers, and many more] a few months ago. He basically told me that he got his start by showing up at a recording studio at age 16 or whatever, where he swept floors and cleaned bathrooms during the day, and learned how record and repair gear by night after sessions.
Audio engineers actually used to be fucking engineers, you know? They built their own recording consoles, because you couldn’t just buy a recording console. Somebody had to build a tape machine. They had to invent a multi-track, and then somebody had to build it, and then somebody had to expand on it, and when they expanded on it, you needed to expand your console, so you built a new one. That’s an engineer – that’s a person who actually engineers a thing to record a record. I think a lot of that art is lost. I tech most of my own gear – definitely nothing as in-depth as EMI building their own console, but… Definitely a dying art.
It was basically a master and apprentice relationship. You taught your skills to somebody and like, passed them on. You had to be good as shit to get a job doing this, and now its just like, go to a recording school, buy a laptop, make records. I think a lot of the soul of the industry has been kinda dwindling. There’s not much of that going on anymore.
Do you feel like you had one guy who was your dude, your master?
Not really, and I kinda wish that I did. I’ve always been kind of a do-it-myself kinda guy, in most if not all aspects of life. So I would just be like, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna learn how to do this, I’m gonna be awesome at it. That was my mindset from the beginning. I’m gonna do this until I’m good at it, with anything – with soldering, or building guitar amps, or, you know, trying to make records. That’s how I approached it, and I wish that there was… because I grew up in, the middle of nowhere. The closest city to me was Frederick, Maryland, which is like, you know, not a cool place. I think there was one pathetic recording studio there. And I wasn’t about to like, drive into terrifying Baltimore to find an internship at a recording studio when I’m like, 15 years old. So I just kinda figured it out.
I’ve met a lot of engineers who have said very different things about whether you should go to school for recording. It’s funny, you could go to school and be the best engineer, but then go to work in a studio or open your own studio and have no idea how to deal with clients, have a good work ethic, know how to deal with crazy people, things you can’t learn in any school.
Yeah, you know you can’t really teach somebody how to deal with a diva client, or with somebody who gets frustrated because they can’t play a part, any of that stuff. In my experience, recording school didn’t teach much of like, the art behind recording – it was very technical. It was just like “This is how this piece of gear works.” It wasn’t like “hey, that sounds good/bad.”
I was reading a lot (not much online at the time, since it was 12 years ago), and trying to get as much experience as I could. And I would figure out how things worked – I didn’t know the signal flow of an SSL console (which is what I learned on), but I knew how to get sound from a microphone to recorder and make a recording. And I was trying to learn how to make better recordings. So it didn’t help me hone my skills so much as it taught me how to make a record in a giant studio with a crazy console.
And did you start with hardcore, punk, metal music? Has that been the path since the beginning?
I’ve always been in [them] – and genre-defined, maybe they wouldn’t be so-called “punk bands,” but like, punk attitude and punk mentality. I’ve always been in bands like that, and I’ve always recorded bands like that. I started out, like I said, just making demos for local bands, and I got so busy that I quit my job. It’s always been on the punk, hardcore and metal side. And more and more, its started to branch out and get more diverse.
You know, I’ve noticed that about the bands you record. Mutilation Rites, for example, I would say musically is pretty far from being a genre “punk” band, but at the same time, that kind of attitude and ethos is behind it.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons they’re such a cool band. As far as attitude and mindset, they’re not as “metal” as most metal bands. I think it shows in the sound, too. They’re way more punk than most black metal bands are. And I think that’s what makes them so cool.
There’s something about those dudes. I’ve been too intimidated to go talk to them when I’ve seen them around at shows just because they look like, you know, they crawled out of a swamp. Like, if there was a dictionary definition for what heavy metal definitively looks like, a picture of Mutilation Rites would be right next to it.
The first time I recorded them, I think they might have been the stinkiest band I ever recorded. But I think they take more showers these days.
Mutilation Rites are from Brooklyn, Full of Hell are from Brooklyn, and Magrudergrind are from D.C. In New York I’ve heard studio owners say that they’re scared to move to Coney Island because nobody wants to go farther than Williamsburg to record. How have you developed these long-distance working relationships with bands?
I don’t exactly know how it happened. I started out recording bands in Baltimore, and as I got more of a reputation I would start doing bands from D.C. and Virginia. As I got more popular I would do bands from Philly, New York, Ohio, all over the place. A lot of it I think has to do with Dom at A389 – he sends me a lot of bands. Even before that, I guess there’s just not that many dudes making cool sounding heavy records in D.C. or Baltimore, so they come to me.
What’s your relationship with A389 – have you been friends with Dom for a while?
I met Dom after I had been recording for a little while – basically he heard a few of my records. They were going to do the last Pulling Teeth record and they wanted to do it with me. We started doing demos for that – they did most of it in my studio. A couple of those songs ended up on split 7-inches here and there. You know, basically, the record evolved – a lot of that was a studio project. We just kind of hit it off, and we became friends. He just wants everything that he releases to sound good. And he likes what I do and I’m close. And, you know, I’m reasonably affordable. So instead of leaving it up to chance – somebody wants to record in a friend’s basement for free – he’ll persuade them to come to me instead.
Is that how the Noisem [Agony Defined] record came together? They were signed before they made the album right?
They were a new band that just got on everybody’s radar in Baltimore, like, holy shit these kids can really play. I think there was another label that was talking about putting out a record for them, and Dom was just like “Let’s do it, let’s book it, we’ll have it out by this date,” and he pulled it off. And they were just like, “all right!” He got them in the studio ASAP, and then it happened.
The popularity of that album is interesting to me given how many years removed we are from the “retro-thrash” movement. Like, The Art of Partying is almost 10 years old.
And then a band like Noisem comes along, and all these people, Pitchfork, Decibel, etc. get behind them. There is something about it – not just the music, the literal notes they’re playing – but also the sonics, that were executed differently. What do you think made this record work, as a piece of art?
A lot of it is, those guys are super young. When we recorded that record, Harley (the drummer) was 14. He may have been 15. I’m not saying they’re getting all this attention because they’re super young kids. I just think that because they’re super young kids, they have a different perspective. I think that they went into making that record with basically no expectations. They were just like “Yeah, we’re gonna make a record, and do what we do, and go to high school.” We tracked in 2 ½ days or something. It was like, “Is it good enough? Ok, go go go go go!” And I think there’s something to be said about making a record that fast: it’s way more spontaneous, you don’t have time to nitpick every detail, you’re like “Wow, that first solo you just did in Take #1 was really awesome. It might have a tiny mistake in it but like, it’s cool. Next.” Because we just didn’t have the time, you know? You can’t do 40 takes of a guitar solo when you have three hours left to make a record. So I think that has a lot to do with it. I think also, they’re young kids. They’re going to school and sitting in their parents’ basements playing music all day long – they also have time to just explore every single piece of music they can get their hands on. So I think they pull a lot of influences from all over the place. They’re way more death metal than most thrash bands. And I think in the newer stuff, they have a lot more sludge and even hardcore influences, and I think it just makes them sound a bit more unique, and a lot more genuine than a lot of those bands.
I’ve heard them talk in particular about the early Earache releases – the Napalm Death and Carcass records, being really big influences. Those bands were also not really in the conversation in the first Wave of the New Thrash, where it was more about the Bay Area.
Right, and [Noisem aren’t] singing songs about partying, they’re singing about depression, and dead stuff. Dark subjects. They’re not just like – “yeah, lets get a beer! Surf the crowd on this boogie board!” “Let’s eat a pizza!” – it’s a completely different thing, and its got a completely different vibe.
I’m shocked that record was made in two days. The performances are so tight.
The drummer and the guitarist are brothers. So they literally just play music together all the time. I think that definitely helps. But yeah, to do a record that fast, you have to be good. They’re tight.
Let’s talk Mutilation Rites. Empyrean [and what I’ve heard from Harbinger] is similar to Agony Defined, I think, in that the production fits the music so well that its almost like the Sixth Man off the bench. A sixth musician. Does that sound crazy?
I guess that does apply. With Mutilation Rites, those guys come in, they set up live, they use most of their own rigs (they might use one of my heads, or one of my pedals, or one of my cabs), but they are pretty much setting up as they would for a live show. We throw the cabs in ISO booths instead of on a stage, get everybody’s headphone mixes, and then just roll through. All those Mutilation Rites records which I worked on, all that stuff’s recorded live to tape with some punch-ins here and there, some overdubs here and there, then throw the vocals on top. When you’re working like that, it’s got a lot to do with who you’re working with, the sound of the room, the sound of the gear, so I think that’s fair. Those guys setting up in my studio with me behind the console, its going to sound fairly similar every time, because it’s the same guys tweaking everything, and I think if they set up somewhere else – in a different studio, or if a different guy recorded it, it would turn out very differently. So, that makes sense.
Do you do a lot of records where bands play live in a room together, or try to push or suggest bands towards doing that?
It really depends on the band and the style, and really, what the band wants to do. There are times where I tell bands, “We need to do this live, it will sound so awesome” And the band is just like “We don’t want to, we’re not gonna.” And then there are a lot of times when the band says “we want to do this live” and I tell them “No, we’re not going to.” Either they don’t have the chops, or… they don’t have, you know, there’s something that one of us thinks and its not gonna work. Sometimes I will suggest it, sometimes I will suggest the opposite. It really depends on what the band’s comfortable with, if I know the band or if I’ve heard demos, or if I’ve seen them live and I know if they can play. A lot of times I question the abilities of some of the bands if I haven’t heard them or am not super familiar with them. I love working live and I love working not-live, it just depends on what is best for the band, best for the project, and really getting everyone comfortable and happy.
Since we’re talking about bands playing live together, do you have any thoughts about trying to record such an inorganic form of music like metal, yet still have it sound organic and human? With the whole quantized drums, and dialed-in Axe-FX tones, that remove guys from tube amplifiers and acoustic drum sounds, that’s a big conversation right now. But either way, we’re not talking about recording a jazz band that’s organic and can basically EQ and mix themselves live in the room together.
Right, and I think when you get that far into what is called “metal,” everything is so technical, that’s where I pretty much step away. I can’t get super into that stuff. Same thing with that style of production – quantized triggered sample-replaced drums, and you know, Axe-FX guitars, and all that stuff, is just not something that I can even relate to at all. It’s just, its not for me. I try to make records that sound like humans made them, and I think, to me, you hear those kinds of bands – you hear a blastbeat, and it doesn’t sound like a human played it. And to me, that’s not extreme. To me, it’s like, you hear a drummer trying to play, and you can hear him kind of struggle a bit, you can hear him sweat. You can hear the room. That to me is extreme, it’s like, “that’s a person doing that, and that’s crazy.” To me, that’s how a metal record should sound. It should sound like people, being angry. Not like, a computer making a drum sound.
Have bands put you in situations where they request that kind of production?
Not really. Usually if I suspect that that’s what a band wants, I will tell them that’s not how I operate – that if they expect a hyper-edited, hyper-fake record, then I’m not the right guy to do it. Usually I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong. Sometimes bands are like, “no, our last record was like that, and we didn’t want it, so we want to come to you.” A lot of times bands send me a hyper-edited demo/EP and I will write back to them that the drums sound edited and triggered and if that’s what you’re expecting, I’m not the right guy. 90% of the time I just don’t ever get an email back. So I’ve never really been put in that position. Sometimes I’ll record a band and the drummer will come in with their kick drum full of pillows, and they’ll insist on a trigger without me mic’ing it at all. And that’s like, once every other year. And I’ll just be like, all right, whatever. We’ll do that. But that’s about the extent of it.
From what I understand, during the As the Palaces Burn sessions, Chris Adler taped quarters to his kick drum heads because he’d heard Lars supposedly did on …And Justice For All. Meanwhile Devin Townsend is in the control room trying to get drum sounds, hearing how that has totally fucked everything up, when its put in the context of the room mics, and the rest of the kit, etc.
It’s an interesting question though, and a pretty old one, of when the engineer should veer into the “producer” role and try to tell bands when they shouldn’t do something that they are set on, when what they are about to do will ruin the record.
I heard a story from a friend of a friend, that a band emailed Kurt Ballou to make a record. It was a metalcore band. His response to their email after listening to their demo was apparently “Sorry, I have a strict no-China policy in my studio [laughs].”
I don’t know how true that is. But I kind of feel like a lot of times I’m just like, “Sorry, I have a no-quantized/triggered drum policy in my studio.” I don’t say it quite that way, but I try not to do that kind of work. So it works out. The bands that come to me also don’t want that kind of sound. It’s a pretty mutual decision.
That’s a pretty cool position to be in. It sounds like it’s the same way with Kurt, or with Colin [Marston] – no djent or ‘core bands are going to him to make records. In a way it seems like the future of the art, now that the big recording studio as an economic model is dying, because budgets are shot, is with the more specialized dudes, who are also specialized by ethos. I think you’re one of those guys. Do you feel that way?
I think that in this day and age, when anybody with a laptop and any audio interface can make a really cool sounding record because they don’t need a great sounding room to make drum sounds because they can replace them… I think it kind of swung from “we can make a record and everything will sound cool” to everything got fake-sounding, its kind of swinging back the other way. People want to make records that sound good, and real. And I think that’s kind of helped. I think Colin and I do very similar things (not necessarily tonally), but we have a very similar work ethic and philosophy behind making a record. I don’t think our records are tonally similar, but I think they’ve got a similar feel to them.
I spoke to Brad Boatright recently, who you’ve worked with before, right?
Yeah, he’s actually one of two mastering guys that I rely on, James Plotkin being the other. Anything low and slow I send to James, anything that’s tighter and brighter and needs to be more in your face, I send to Brad. Anytime that something I record gets sent to someone else, I’m always pissed off, so… [laughs].
I think I first started using him, and then Dom started using him, and it went from there. Brad is excellent at communicating. He’s got no hesitation to give me input. He’s really awesome. I think his masters sound great. A lot of time they’re not as loud as other masters, which means they breathe a little bit more, but when they are loud, they rip.
Communication really is everything, especially when you’re working with other engineers on the same project, right? Brad expressed that about Kurt.
Yeah, you know I’ve never even met Brad. We text a lot. My girlfriend actually calls him my West Coast boyfriend because talk so much via text. But yeah, he was asking me what my console was at one point, and he ended up buying an EQ that’s actually a stereo version of the EQ that’s in my console, and he was asking me advice about it. Just being able to talk to a dude about that kind of stuff is awesome, and makes me want to send him more records. I’ve sent files to mastering engineers and called them, emailed them, asking for input – I’ll get no response, then the band says we don’t like those masters, then the mastering engineer says the cymbals were mixed too high, and I’m like, “well, I asked you two weeks ago if you wanted anything changed and you didn’t say anything, so fuck you very much, here’s a new mix with lower cymbals.”It’s cool to have a guy who is reliable and good at communicating.
One of the things we talked about was how technology has changed the way records are made. Like being able to email mixes back and forth, Googling mic/amp setups, checking websites like Gear Gods to learn about how records were made. Is that stuff on your radar?
As far as like, just how it’s sped things up, I definitely live in that world. I love it when I can send somebody a mix and leave it on the console, go grab lunch or dinner, and when they ask me to turn a lead up I can do it and just bounce a new one back. That’s awesome. As far as Internet forums and the power of Google and being able to, you know, find out what amp or cab or mic or whatever was used on whatever record… that’s on my radar when I hear a record and I’m like, “holy fuck, how did they make that cool tone, or that fucked up thing, or that big sound,” and I’ll try to find a bit of info on it. I used to do it more when I was younger, when I was just trying to absorb information on any sort of recording technique that I could try, so that in a certain situation I could whip out this weird thing I read on the Internet one time.
But nowadays, if somebody’s like “hey, we really like the guitar tone on some record,” usually I tell them, look, I’m not trying to jack someone else’s hard work. But if you like this guitar tone – if its mid heavy, or its really bright, or its really scooped, or whatever, then I’m down to try and accomplish something like that, but like – here’s the tools that we have. I think this will work best. Do you like this amp and this pedal together? We’ll try to find something that fits in the realm of what they’re trying to achieve without just ripping off what somebody else did. And I think a lot of times the bands are like “Oh that’s awesome! We wanted it to sound unique.” A lot of times bands come to me because they want to make a unique sounding record, not because they’re trying to rip somebody off. So I think it works out well.
Since you mention leaving your mixes on the console, lets talk about your mixing process. Do you mix in the box, or do you have a lot of outboard gear, or some kind of hybrid set-up?
It’s mostly hybrid setup. I will sometimes do a mix that is completely, well not completely in the box, I’ll have some hardware inserts here and there – or at least process the stereo buss a little bit with an EQ or a compressor or both. That’s as close to fully in the box as I’ll get. And I usually reserve that for like, insane track counts, or a band that may or not be a pain in the ass, where if I think I’m gonna hit like six revisions of a record, then I will keep it mostly in Pro Tools. If I think I can knock it out in one or three passes of a mix, then I will at least do some, if not all, of the mixing on the console. I do have a decent amount of outboard gear, but I don’t have quite enough to completely mix. I’ve done complete mixes on the console with no plugins, but they tend to be pretty raw, and I usually hit the console pretty hard to give it a kind of, a more overdriven, a little more fucked-up sound.
Is that how the new Mutilation Rites record was mixed? The new songs sound pretty unprocessed. Was that one of those mixes?
That record was tracked to tape, then dumped to Pro Tools for clean-up and ease of recall, and it was definitely some on the console, with outboard compression used on kick and snare, and like, console EQ for most stuff. I’m sure there are a few plugins here and there. I don’t own a hardware de-esser, so if I need a de-esser, I use a plugin. Those records are mostly mixed on a console, though I’d still call it a hybrid setup, since I sub-mix all the guitars to stereo in Pro Tools, and then just bring up two channels on the console, instead of having six or eight guitar tracks on the console.
Are there any plugins that you like a lot, or use frequently?
There are some that I use frequently, but mostly because they’re easy. I’ve never pulled up a plugin compressor and gone “Man, this sounds way better than this other plugin compressor!” So I use the Massey CT4 a lot, mostly because it has two switches and two knobs. I’ll use that for a lot of things that are not drums. And honestly, I use the stock Digidesign EQ more than any other EQ plugin. I think it sounds fine, and if I’m gonna reach for a plugin EQ, I don’t need something like… I’ve got the Waves API stuff, and like, I’ve got real 550B’s, and I think they sound better than the Waves 550B’s. If I’m gonna reach for a plugin EQ, I might as well have it be a five-band fully parametric, instead of just like, you know, Click here! You have two DB steps. Maybe I only want one dB. I can use the Digi plugin, it’s fine. There’s nothing that I really, really reach for much. Especially nothing fancy or expensive.
It seems like you get to mix a lot of the records you record. Do you send stuff to other engineers much, or do you tend to see your projects through?
I think up until a month ago, I had mixed everything that I ever recorded. A month or two ago, I had a band that tracked with me and actually sent it to Kurt to mix it. I’m pretty sure that’s the first record I ever had somebody else mix. I usually mix all my own stuff, which is awesome. I like being able to do that. I think that’s the only one that was ever not mixed by me.
Do you mix any outside projects?
I do. I don’t do a ton of it. I recorded this band called Pianos Become the Teeth. I don’t think you’d call it screamo, but like melodic post-hardcore. That record did really well and I got a lot of people asking me to mix their record after that one came out. A lot of them I turned down because they tracked in their basement, or tracked in a studio that didn’t know what they were doing, and I told them that I wasn’t going to steal the Pianos’ drum sound to throw on their record. And they’d be like “Oh, okay,” and just never email me back.
I turn down a decent amount of mix projects because of that, and then most of the ones that I do are for A389. Dom will reissue a record, say they can get the masters, and the record didn’t sound that great originally, and I’ll remix it and try and make it a little more in-your-face sounding. Stuff like that. I probably only mix five or six records a year that I didn’t track myself.
Do you feel pretty strongly about seeing your stuff through, up to sending it off to get mastered?
Generally I do. I mean, I wasn’t super opposed to sending this record to Kurt. It was the first one, and [when we booked the time], the band told me. Initially I was kind of bummed, but then I got over it. I was worried it was going to come out the other end sounding like Kurt Ballou, instead of sounding like me. I didn’t want to spend time tracking this awesome record, and then send it off to another dude who’s gonna get all the credit. His records have a very distinct sonic character, which I think is cool, I just feared that it would remove my sonic character. Once I got the mixes back it did not at all. It sounded pretty much like I had tracked it, and he had mixed it. So a little bit of both of us, and I think the end result is awesome. I’ve never protested sending a mix to somebody else. That was just the first time somebody had asked.
I do think there’s a potential to be very unhappy if somebody else mixed it.
Do you think though, that in this situation, that your and Kurt’s familiarity and comfort level with this music, and maybe similar work ethics and attitudes, makes it a bit different? That its not just two engineers working on a record, but two particular people who care about a band, who actually really care about the music.
Yeah, that definitely helps. I think that if that band was like “yeah, we’re gonna have some guy mix our record” I would have either protested, or done a lot of research and tried to figure out what that dude’s deal was, and tried to make sure that it was the best thing for the record. To backtrack, I think its good to have guys that are familiar with the music, or at least familiar with the genre, or are interested in the music, working on your record. Because I think it shows, that someone cared.
You’ve worked on a lot of bands debut albums, or at least debut full-lengths. I hate asking “do you have any words of wisdom?” but like, I’ve worked on so many sessions where it’s a bands first time, and they just can’t get it together to really make something great – they get frustrated, they can’t focus, they get sidetracked, etc. What would you advise?
The obvious first thing I’d tell bands is to practice. Make sure you know your parts as well.
Beyond that, and more importantly than that, is writing parts you can actually play. Because you’d be astonished at the number of people that write all these parts that they can either not play, or that they can barely play – which means they cannot play them particularly well – or that they can play them well sometimes, but they can’t play them consistently. So that if you try to do a punch-in, and they were strumming really hard on the first take or something, if they’re not playing it consistently it’s hard to get a good punch-in. I think just writing parts… if you write a part that’s 90% of your ability [instead of] 100%, then you will be able to pull it off more consistently, and just sound better. I think that’s a good thing for young bands to know. Because for so many bands when they’re making their first record, they want it to be the most amazing, most incredible record they can make. They want to surprise everybody, prove how awesome they are. And then they just… can’t. It’s stressful, because they’re not performing at the level they thought they were going to perform at, they’re not getting as good takes as they wanted, and then they end up making a mediocre record, because they just can’t play it. Unless you’re relying on technology to fabricate a performance… but I think that’s much less impressive these days than actually being able to play.
And then the third piece of advice is, don’t worry about it. You fuck up, you can do it again. It’s a studio. People get really nervous – they tense up, and then they can’t perform like they normally would. And you know, I oftentimes have to coach people into relaxing and just playing it. And if somebody fucks up, if we’re trying to track a two-minute song and they keep fucking up ten seconds in, I make them finish the song. I tell them it’s cool, lets just get through a take. I think people need to learn to relax, to say “I fucked up ten seconds in but I’m going to get through it, just so I feel better about my life.” Knowing that you can do it again if you fuck up is a huge deal.
That’s a tough thing to learn, because recording is different than when you’re practicing or doing it live. There’s the pressure of knowing that money is being spent, wanting to impress people, etc… I think that Noisem anecdote, that they did it in two days, people will appreciate hearing that.
Totally. I have conversations with bands all the time about the difference between a good fuck-up and a bad fuck-up. Like, when a guitar solo isn’t supposed to sound some way, but it sounds live and passionate and spontaneous, so what if one note is a little fucked up, or like, you hit a harmonic when you weren’t supposed to? It sounds cool and real and let’s keep it. Sometimes people protest, and some people are like “really, you think so?” A lot of those Noisem solos were like that. They’re not perfect, but it’s perfect. I say to bands a lot, perfection is in the imperfections. Its cool, it sounds real, it sounds like your band…let’s roll with it.
All right dude, any bands or projects you’ve worked on we should check out?
Off the top of my head, there’s a band from Baltimore called Holy Tongues that’s, not actually metal at all. They sound kind of like a modern-day Jesus Lizard. They’re awesome. I did their record this time last year but it just came out. I’m doing the new Full of Hell album in July, which is a collaboration with Merzbow.