Play it and Move On: An Interview with Jack Shirley of The Atomic Garden Recording Studio

While the East Coast is generally regarded as the hub of extreme music recording studios, producer/engineer/studio-owner Jack Shirley has been cranking out phenomenal hardcore, metal, and punk albums at his Atomic Garden Recording Studio in San Francisco. Jack’s been gradually building up a formidable discography, having helmed all of Deafheaven’s studio albums (including Sunbather and New Bermuda), as well as mixed, mastered, or recorded works by cutting-edge independent bands like Loma Prieta, Ghostlimb, Joyce Manor, Young and in the Way, and many more.

Jack comes from a background of playing in punk bands – check out his old project Comadre – and built up his recording business completely on his own. For my money, he’s one of the great punk recordists working today: staunchly committed to tracking live, working with analog gear, and letting little mistakes color a band’s music. 

It seems like you’ve had a pretty busy year.

Jack Shirley: Yeah, it’s been a busy year for the last few years. But it’s good, it’s fun.

How did you get into music and the underground?

It’s funny, I’ve been going through old files today and found a receipt for my very first Pro Tools system, stuff like that. So I can actually tell you, let’s see here: July of 2003. I’ve played music locally and in punk bands since I was 15, and now I’m 34. Everything in between there has slowly been climbing to where things are today.

Playing music, being in bands, and trying to record with people, to me poses a bit of a challenge because of how heavy-handed people can be in a recording studio environment, where you kind of go in with an idea of what you want, and then you get told that what you want isn’t the right thing. I quickly realized that I needed to eliminate this middleman, between me and getting this simple thing done that I wanted to get done. That led to recording with friends, anybody that had a little set-up. Eventually, in 2003, a band I was in was working on a DIY recording and the mixing portion was going off the rails. Things were getting too convoluted. I had just gotten this Pro Tools system and had been demo-ing at home for fun. I said to the drummer, who had been handling the mixing, “Hey man, why don’t you give this thing to me, and let me see what I can do.” I trial-and-errored my way through mixing the record and that was it. I was hooked after that.

So it grew out of playing with bands.

Yeah, it came from knowing what I wanted to hear but not necessarily knowing how to achieve it. A lot of trial and error, a lot of failing, reading and learning. I don’t have any formal schooling or anything like that – it’s all been based on my own experience and whatever I can gather through the literature, interviews, things like that.

It sounds like you were trying to do this at the same time that you were working at a car dealership and going to school for illustration. So still studying the arts, and in your free time you were recording with bands and playing music. I think that narrative of shooting in different directions is a common thread for this generation, but do you have any reflections on that period of your life?

That time of doing all those different things didn’t last very long because it was like, an 80-hour week adventure. I was working 30 hours a week, I was going to school 30 hours a week, and I was trying to record all weekend long. It became painfully apparent that this wasn’t a sustainable way to live my life. So the first thing I quit was my job, because it was the thing I liked least. It was a dice roll, but it turned out I was in the right place at the right time, being in the Bay Area, specifically in the Peninsula – I’m like 30 miles south of San Francisco – where there were a lot of people doing like, pretty DIY bands. I was in one of those bands. We were all kind of in it together, and I was the only person in the area doing any low-budget DIY recording. It just kind of snowballed. I think in late 2003, I got set up to do what I was doing. Within a year and a half I was doing it as a job – it was my only income.

Kurt Ballou loves to talk about the division of labor in punk and metal communities – that despite how it purports to be an outsider culture, it functions like any other economy. When there’s a need for a role to be filled, it is.

When you find a craft or niche that you do, you gain respect for other people’s work. I needed to get a desk made for a console I was installing, and I have a furniture maker friend who’s also a musician, so we ended up just trading time. Recording time for a new desk. But you really appreciate other peoples’ skills, and how it can all work together.

What were the albums, or who were the engineers, that made you realize that somebody made decisions behind a desk about how something should sound?

There wasn’t a direct “oh, I really like this person’s work.” It was more about the stuff that I didn’t like, and trying to gravitate away from that sort of thing. In the early 2000’s there was a lot of really synthetic sounding stuff happening. Overproduced recordings, that sort of thing. But then Jane Doe came out – that had a big impact on everybody. There’s stuff I still use now for reference, like Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American, that had a big influence, I’d say, just the way that whole record fits together. Even going back to like, AC/DC with Back in Black – that’s still a big reference to me today. In 1980 they kind of figured out how to make a rock recording sound the best it could sound. In a lot of ways, nobody’s really surpassed that album yet.

I think that album sounds phenomenal. It’s so beautifully strung together, with each individual part.

Sure, it’s amazing.

What strikes me about your production work is how it puts the work back on the band, pretty heavily. Which a lot of engineers now focus on – Kevin Bernsten, Colin Marston, Kurt – but with your recordings, I don’t hear as much of an established “sound” as with them. With you it seems to be more about the spirit, and about bringing the best out of the band.

I definitely lean more towards that approach – it’s pretty hands off. And that comes from, like I was saying earlier, when I was younger and playing in bands and had a clear idea of what I wanted. I just wanted the guy behind the board to do whatever I wanted, and not challenge it. There’s a difference between showing someone the pros and cons of certain choices, and saying “no, what you want is wrong, and what I want is right.” I think a lot of musicians face the latter when they go to a recording studio. I never want to do that to anybody. I’m super happy to produce somebody’s record and weigh in with opinions all over the place, but I’m just as happy to sit back and literally just do whatever they want – even if I think it’s a bad idea.

That seems like one of the big tensions in modern recording, now that there aren’t big budgets for producers like there were 20 years ago.

I’ve heavily produced records that I’ve been a part of, so I’m definitely comfortable doing that. But it’s definitely not my default approach. If somebody comes in and they have a very specific guitar sound, I’m not going to make them use one of my amps just because I think it sounds better, because it’s not a part of their sound. That stuff comes through on a record, I think. It’s part of the character of a band. I want to hear what a band sounds like, and to have their voice come through. The whole idea of a band needing a producer in the studio is a weird thing. There’s too many bands out there, and they can’t all be molded into some awesome thing. There’s gotta be a little bit of a survival of the fittest type thing. If a band’s not good, then people should probably just know (laughs)

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When does that evaluation – deciding to be hands-off – actually happen? During preparation, when you’re talking to bands, or moment-to-moment when you’re actually in the studio?

It can be a bit of all those things. Some bands ask to be guided, but then when you’re actually in there, they don’t actually don’t want as much of my input as they said they did. You can just tell by how they react to ideas. Like, if you make a suggestion and the band looks at each other, kinda panicking, well then, maybe you shouldn’t push that. You always have to be ready to adjust, I guess.

You built your studio from scratch, in a kind of Steve Albini-esque way with a bunch of your friends.

Full disclosure: we built this thing 10 years ago, and none of us knew what we were doing. We tried to cut as many costs as possible. I was still new at this thing, and worried about blowing a bunch of money on the studio and it not working out. What would I do with this place if it didn’t pay the bills?

It wasn’t expensive, and it didn’t take that much time. The only professionals we brought in were to run the electrical stuff, and the glass guy who installed the windows. Otherwise it was a bunch of friends with some pretty minimal building experience, just throwing up some walls.

Did you have other studios or vibes in mind that you wanted to go for?

When I started, I was working out of my parent’s garage, and it happened to have enough compartments in it that I had a kind of control room/iso room/live room. But they weren’t very well separated, it was just enough to put an amp in one corner, have the drummer over here. So [in building Atomic Garden] I just made bigger versions of all that, of what I was used to.

I hadn’t really spent time in a lot of other studios, so I didn’t have much to go off in terms of other designs. There are things that you just inherently learn about studio design – like keeping the walls angled in such a way, having the ceiling be not too low, things like that, which you learn out of necessity.

It wasn’t actually until years later, when I started working at other studios, when I realized other things I wanted to change. But when we first built the space, it didn’t sound like anything. It was very deadened – which is what you do when you don’t know anything, you make everything super absorbent so that the room doesn’t interfere with what you’re doing. You learn later, I think, to use the room more as an instrument, and to your advantage.

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Have you always run an analog/digital hybrid?

No, when I first started the whole thing was pretty much an expanded Pro Tools system. When I first moved into this space – it’s funny, I saw an old photo the other day – there was so much room in the control room that you could run laps around the board, you know? There was nothing here. Now you can barely walk around in there, it’s gotten a bit out of control…

The first thing was basically a Pro Tools system with a Pro Tools-made control surface, which is like a mixing console, but it’s not. No audio runs through it. It’s just a big software controller, essentially. It’s like a big mouse, but it has faders and buttons and stuff, so it looks like a console, and it gives you hands-on. But it’s not really an analog piece of equipment. But once we got the studio set up, I started, little by little, getting into the hardware world, and then eventually into tape. And now the place can actually function 100% without a computer. I’ve been doing that a lot lately, and its really really fun. That’s much more my speed. But that’s a pretty new development.

That’s interesting. I was just at Colin Marston’s studio checking out the new Gorguts sessions, and he’s gone the other way, from using tape machines to going completely digital for both recording and in the box. Meanwhile I’m reading that you’re even doing some in-house mastering work, all-analog.

With anything that I’m mastering, which is most of my recordings, I kind of have a hybrid thing. There’s what some guys call a “color pass” where you’re running your mixes through a bunch of hardware to get a certain kind of tone in the big-picture, and then I use software for more surgical moves. With albums like Sunbather, which I recorded and mixed, those run through analog gear for the actual mixdown. So that’s not really considered “analog mastering” necessarily – it’s just a mixdown chain that goes through hardware into tape and stuff like that. Then I would do the mastering digitally, because there’s very little to do once the mix is done. I kind of handle most of what I want to do in mixing.

But if I’m handed a recording to master that I didn’t work on, I’ll do an analog pass and a digital pass, to simulate that same mixdown chain that I would use for my own recordings.

That’s something you’re still doing, right?

The new Deafheaven record, and most of the recordings I do, get tracked to 2-inch tape. Usually the band is playing live. For the most part we’ll work off the tape for the majority of the tracking, if not all of it. So there’s almost no computer involved at all. When the tracking’s done, I’ll dump it all into Pro Tools and do whatever I need to do – which is usually just some clean-up editing, nothing too heavy – and then from Pro Tools I’ll mix out… This part gets a little convoluted. I do a thing called “analog summing” through a console, which then runs through a bunch of outboard stuff into a 2-track tape machine, and then back into Pro Tools as the mix. The idea is to run the thing as if there were no computer, but you’re using the computer as a quick stopping point for archiving and mix preparation.

The reason for doing that would be to access a certain kind of sound quality from those old machines, right?

Absolutely. You’re using it for the tone. The way the tape captures sound is just kind of magical. You can emulate it, but to emulate it properly is a pain in the ass. Using the tape, it just happens. The way that you interact with it is really easy and organic-feeling. So I like using tape whenever possible. In the last five or six years since I’ve been running tape machines, I couldn’t tell you more than two or three recordings that haven’t gone to tape. Now, moving even further away from the computer has been super fun. It adds a whole other level of “hands on-ness” for the band.

So are you mixing with analog gear too?

When I dump stuff to Pro Tools, and I mix from Pro Tools, I’m summing through a console – taking your multitrack in the computer and bringing it down to 2 tracks. People that are working entirely in the box are summing digitally, where you’re using a virtual console to sum your multitrack down to your stereo mix. Analog summing means that you’re taking the individual tracks from Pro Tools, and you’re sending them through individual outs on a recording interface. So if I have 30 tracks, I’m going out of 30 outputs from my computer into my console, so that the console can do the summing.

There’s a lot of advantages to that sound-wise. So now you have this 2-track mix that’s coming out of your console. I’d send that to hardware, like an EQ or a compressor, and then send that to the 2-track tape machine, and then back to Pro Tools as a stereo mix. So even when I’m mixing “digitally” from Pro Tools, I’m still using most of the same analog gear as if I was doing it without the computer, if that makes sense.

It’s like toasting a bagel to perfection.

There are some dedicated “summing mixers” – which are basically boxes whose job is to just do analog summing. Oftentimes those are passive boxes, which means you’re sending a bunch of inputs into them, summing them to the stereo mix, and then there are amplifiers that are just on those 2-channel outputs at the end, to add that bit of “analog warmth” or whatever. That’s passive summing.

When you get into the console world – which is super exciting, and I’ve been working my way towards it for a long time financially – you have “active summing.” Instead of just having two amplifiers at the end of your whole chain, now you have an amplifier on each individual channel, which interacts with what’s coming towards it. It adds a lot more character to what you’re working on, and you can push it differently than passive summing – which kind of takes it in, with a lot of head-room, and it’s pretty hi-fi. With active summing you can push things per-channel, which you couldn’t do otherwise. That’s made a huge difference in my mixing.

The spectrum of punk recordings now is pretty wide – you have Kurt Ballou’s stuff, you have supper glossy stuff, and then you have a lot of purposely shitty, almost 90’s black metal aesthetic sounding recordings. What strikes me about how you use these techniques is that they come after getting a good live sound and performance. It seems like your workflow brings the best of all these different practices together.

I try not to encroach too much on a band’s process, but I do encourage everyone to record live. Even if my whole selling point is “worst case scenario you hate everything except the drums, we can throw it all out, keep the drums, and go from there.” A lot of bands go into smaller studios where recording live isn’t even an option. They get used to doing everything one track at a time. I think that’s a detrimental thing to try and keep the energy up in a recording. You’re a band – you play together! When you practice, you don’t all just sit around a room and watch the drummer play drums.

I found it’s kind of hard to sell people on it sometimes, until they actually are set up. It doesn’t feel like recording. The idea is to get a band to forget that they’re recording, and to just, like, be comfortable and have your live vibe. That comes through on a recording.

Is that how the new Deafheaven album New Bermuda was done?

That album was recorded live. The second song, “Luna” – if I’m not mistaken, that was the first take of the first day. That ten-minute long song was recorded all in one shot, with the band all playing together. No click-tracks, live to tape, that’s it. They’re just that good. We doubled the guitars afterwards, but otherwise it was recorded live.

Sunbather to me still feels like it has the toe in the door of being George and Kerry’s “project.” Whereas New Bermuda really does sound like a rock band.

For sure. It’s the sound of four guys who have been playing together every day on tour. That lineup has been the lineup. Those guys have toured the world. You can hear how tight they are. When we did Sunbather, it was just Kerry and Dan [Tracy, drums] recording, and that was it. Kerry layered everything. Kerry played everything on that record except for the vocals and drums.

You can hear the difference now. They gel really well.

There’s also… mistakes! Some guitars sound a bit sloppy or out of tune. Not in a bad way, but in a more powerful, emotional way.

The way I am, I never stress about mistakes. I love the human-ness of musicians playing. Sometimes I worry that I’m not tuned enough to it, because people will make mistakes and I won’t care. Deafheaven weren’t tripping about that stuff at all. Nobody was hung up on fixing little things. It was more like, “Ok, that’s how I played it, let’s move on.” It’s pretty cool.

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Do you have any advice to a young band on how to grapple with all this stuff – managing a budget, playing live in a room together. Some people don’t even know what playing live even means.

Demoing is a great, great thing. On any level, even just putting an iPhone in the middle of the room while you’re practicing. The pitfalls that a lot of people have start there – for instance, they can’t hear each other during practice. So when they get in the studio, they’re surprised by what everyone’s doing. “Wait, that’s what you’re playing right there? What are we going to do about that?” Except now you’re in the studio. If you’re a Deafheaven, and you can use as much time as you feel like, that’s not a big deal. But if you’re on a tight budget and only have one day to track live, then that’s a bummer. It can suck the life out of a room.

Outside of that, having clear goals for what you want is super important. I try to make things easy – you’re a band, we’re gonna put you in a room, and you’re gonna play. You don’t need to worry about anything. We’re gonna figure it all out.

The other thing is, if you have a budget, you tell the person you’re recording with, “this is how much money we can spend.” Anybody who knows what they’re doing can figure out what can be done with that amount of money. On my website, I still say “all budgets welcome,” which sounds crazy, but it doesn’t mean you can have 2 weeks for $300. It means if all you have to spend is $400 on your whole recording, we’re gonna figure out what we can do to make that happen.

Being prepared, having your gear up to snuff, having your songs dialed in, all that stuff is important. But so is being realistic about what you’re capable of. I have bands come in here that will run through a song, and it kind of sounds like a mess. They listen to it, and they know it sounds like a mess, and they say “well, that’s the best we can play the song.” There’s something about knowing your limits that works so well, because you don’t get hung up on little things. Maybe it can’t sound “great.”

I feel like, especially in genres like metal, there’s this need to prove yourself, and play “perfectly.” Which I get, because you want a recording that’s the best representation of your musicianship. But maybe the best representation of your musicianship is that you can’t play something perfectly, and cool things can come out of that too.

I see a lot of times, people are trying to play above their ability. I think that isn’t doing anybody a service. It’s not gonna create a good recording. It’s gonna bum you out. If you wrote a drum part that you can only play one out of ten times, then maybe that’s not the right part for this time in your musical life. I find that some of the music that like, really has “that thing” that works so well, is people just rocking out. Because it’s not about that one little part, it’s about the whole band playing together. To me that’s what it’s all about – not having that one “sick riff” that you can’t actually play right.

That discomfort comes through faster than anything else, I think, for the average listener.

When you go see a band live and they’re so nervous and uncomfortable that they’re not even visibly enjoying themselves, then how am I supposed to have fun? How am I supposed to get into what you’re doing if you’re not even into it, because you’re paralyzed by whatever’s going on?

But there is, like you were saying, a healthy “survival of the fittest.” If good bands inspire you to play better, then you’re going to work on it. It takes time for a lot of bands – Converge had a ten-year period before Jane Doe showed what they could really do, Ben Weinman was almost 30 when Dillinger Escape Plan made Miss Machine. Those bands took time to find their voice, and to find their abilities.

Absolutely – and you’re talking about virtuoso musicians. The end of it that I see are bands that are still 5, 10 years away from that, but they’re trying to pull it off as though they aren’t. Well, you gotta spend a lot more time in your bedroom before that’s gonna work.

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Max is managing editor of Gear Gods.