Punk Sound Engineers Interview by Meghan Minior

Give Me Back #3, 2007

How did you get involved in recording?

WILL: I think my story is like most people who record, I was in high school and in a band so I bought a 4-track.  Then I had a 16 channel mixer to use with it, making sub-mixes.   Then I went to college and started using their studio, helping friends bands record, and finally after graduating I put together a studio in my house.  I think a combination of necessity early on and then being 'the guy who kinda knows what he's doing' is all it really was, that and of course an interest in the process, technique, etc.  I'm also fully aware that playing the type of music I do will never pay any bills, so recording is a way that I can be involved with what I love, music, and pay some bills at the same time.

Why is it important to record music? Is it important?

WILL: I think the recording of music is an interesting phenomenon, if you think about it, for most of the human existence songs and music were always temporary things and songs were arguably different every time they were performed.  Now with the existence of recording, there is a definitive version of songs and music that exist in their studio recording version.  I'm certainly glad that recording exists in terms of how it affects the way I relate to music, and that I didn't have to be at a Clash show in 1979 to appreciate their music for example.  It's hard to imagine what the world would be like without recorded music, but it seems safe to assume that without it my entire life and the existence of the d.i.y. network would be completely different, so in that regards it's extremely important.  Also, when I say my entire life, I don't mean because I record music for a job, I mean in terms of playing in a band, touring, and especially the exposure to various music and the ideas contained within it that helped define my viewpoints on life and influenced the music I play.  Honestly the more I think about it, the harder it is to imagine what life would be without it, it kinda seems like it could be the basis of a really terrible movie...

Did you go to school for it? Do you think going to school to learn recording is necessary?

WILL: Well, the college I went to allowed students to define their own major, and it had a studio that I used, so I can't completely say I didn't go to school for it, but at the same time they only had one recording class that was very rudimentary, so it was a very different experience than actually attending a school that specializes in recording, and probably a lot less informative.  I don't think going to school for recording is necessary, I feel very confident that most of what I've learned about recording has been done on my own just working in the studio, and feel most people probably have similar experiences. Sometimes I wonder if there's knowledge that I could benefit from that a 'real' training could have provided, but then it seems most people going to recording school don't seem to think it provides such things. Ultimately I don't think there's a right or wrong way to pursue one's interest in it though.

What is your recording set up like?

WILL: I record to an Alesis HD24 hard disk recorder with 24 tracks.  Almost all the rest of my gear is analog compressors, mic pre-amps, gates, etc all run through my Soundcraft Ghost 32 channel mixing board. Essentially the 24 track just acts as a tape deck with minor editing capabilities.  I think this set up works well as I'm not really into the idea of working "in-the-box" on a computer for everything, although I realize it allows a new extreme level of control, I'm not sure that that is entirely necessary, especially when making punk records.  I also just like to reach out and grab things and move them around , so I guess it's partially just a tactile thing.  I would like the option of being able to record on tape as well, but I don't really have the space for a tape machine currently, and most of the bands I record seem too broke to afford 2" reels anyway.

What have been some of your favorite/worst recording experiences?

WILL: This is a dangerous question!  It's hard to single out a specific favorite experience, I think really some of my favorite times in the studio have been working with bands that are also friends and working hard on a longer project, but having a good time while doing it, this would include the likes of Daniel Striped Tiger, Ringers, Death To Tyrants, Mind Eraser, Das Oath and assorted Mark McCoy projects, etc. Worst experiences, would probably range from amps or drums breaking mid-session (although I once soldered a bass to work again which felt triumphant), to drunk bands, to funk bands spending four days in the studio, to bands who high-five over stupidly offensive lyrics, etc.  I don't really want to get too specific!

Do you have some sort of quality control on who you accept work with, do you have to like the band already?

WILL: Initially I worked with anyone who wanted to record with me, but over time I realized it wasn't always beneficial for any party involved if the music was something completely removed from anything I find decent (meaning rap-rock, folk-funk, etc... all those damn hyphenated genres).  So, I've started turning some people down, but for the most part my interests are fairly varied and I certainly have no problem working with people I don't know yet.  In fact, I've made a lot of great friends by recording their bands, which is really cool.

Do you record your own music? What are some of the positive and negative aspects of this?

WILL: Yes, for the past seven years I've recorded all the material for the bands I've been involved in.  I think a positive and negative aspect would be having the ability to be endlessly critical, and being emotionally involved in what you're creating.  Ultimately it's something I enjoy doing and I'm glad that I can have that level of control over my own music, although at times I also wish I had some of that outsider perspective of reality.  Recently I tried having someone else mix one of my band's recordings, but wasn't satisfied with it and ended up re-doing 90% of it myself anyways.  It was a really informative process for me, although probably not something I would do again.

What are some projects you most recently recorded?

WILL: I've been busy a lot with my record label, Clean Plate, and with two bands, Ampere and Failures, so i haven't been in the studio as much as usual, but recent sessions of note would be: Arts, Social Circkle, Relics, Ringers, Wasteland, Aerosols, L'Antietam, Dennis, Furnace, etc...

Is this currently your only job?

WILL: For the past several years it has been, although I recently started working a part-time job just to help a bit with downtimes and to have some additional, reliable income.

What are some of the main things that you have learned in general about the recording process? What advice would you give to recordees, as they approach the notion of recording music in a studio?

WILL: One of the things that has sort of been an on going realization is how much each individual instrument's sound can affect the perception of the other instruments around it.  I know before I ever started recording I never gave a second thought to drum sound or even performance really, but now feel like it's the foundation of a mix or song.  But really, having a guitar amp that sounds like a car wreck can be really hard to work around (or sometimes is perfect!), just like a drum kit where everything is beat to hell and is out of any life.  I think my advice to most bands about to record is to be more prepared than they think they need to be.  So many bands use studio time practicing/changing songs, writing lyrics, realizing something is broken, debating details, etc, which is ok, but it just makes me realize that the studio time could be much more efficient if these things were addressed prior to recording.  I would also suggest bands practice playing through their songs without vocals, so they're not necessarily dependent on those cues when recording.  Also, changing strings, new drum heads, etc, will all help you get a better sound out of a recording faster.

What do you really like in a recording, personally?

WILL: This is tough, because there are so many things to like in a recording, and I'd like to like them all!  Something perhaps worth noting that I really like in a punk recording, or any recording I guess, is a certain sense of a lack of perfection.  I think this probably exists in all albums before a certain time, but in recent years the impossibly perfect sound is becoming popular, even in underground music.  Now, I don't want to hear an album that's full of mistakes or anything, hardly, but I think that ultimately having drum hits that aren't all the same volume/sound, and having pieces of unintentional feedback, or minutely missed guitar strums is all part of what makes a recording sound human.  I think a lot of people have many different takes on this kind of stuff, but my feeling is that once you remove all of these natural elements, the end product becomes harder to relate to, as it starts to feel literally inhuman.  I guess I think a little bit of chaos or randomness is good to have in a performance.

What are a few of your favorite pieces of gear?

WILL: I think my favorite things are primarily outboard gear, and mainly the ones that can do things that nothing else I own can.  So, those would have to be the Drawmer LX20 compressor, DBX 566 compressor, and honestly various guitar distortion pedals used as outboard effects ranging from a modified tube screamer, a rat, some boss turbo overdrive, etc, all can do some pretty interesting things when blended in and used tastefully.  I have a fair amount of other more traditional stuff which certainly do their part and do it well, but I guess it's the character that the aforementioned devices impart on what they process that makes them special in my opinion.  Lastly, I'd probably have to mention my Marshall JCM800, which while debatably not a piece of recording gear I suppose, has been used on a variety of recordings and has never let me down.   This all said, of course, my gear is directly proportional to what I can afford, so there may be tons of other things I could rave about, I'm just not in a place to find out!

As home recording becomes more affordable and accessible, does it in turn make your job obsolete?

WILL: I think to an extent the answer is definitely yes, although clearly what someone makes at home or in a practice space on a computer is different than what they would create in a studio, but that's necessarily a bad or good thing.  Probably the most valuable thing a studio can offer, besides different sonic options, is the experience of the engineer, which is something that no beginner's home recording set up can replace or duplicate.  However, as noted earlier, a punk record doesn't exactly need to be perfect to be great, and obviously great records have and can be made at home or in a studio.  It will be interesting to see though what happens in the next five, ten, or twenty years in the recording industry.

Do you think it is necessary for a punk band to get a record mastered? Do you do mastering? Is there somewhere you would recommend?

WILL: Necessary?  No, not unless there is a problem that needs addressing.  A good idea?  Sure!  Personally I get all the recordings I play on mastered because it has become part of my process for getting the end result I desire.  If you're releasing a CD it's probably a good idea to get it mastered to make sure that the volume is "competitive" as they say, and so it sounds more consistent on various playback systems.  For vinyl, it becomes less necessary in my opinion because there will still be a mastering engineer who cuts it to the vinyl and can adjust the volume and EQ as needed, if needed.  However, if you get your final mix and feel that there's ways it could be improved upon that don't require a re-mix, it might very well be worth it.  For demo CDs or tapes I wouldn't recommend it, just because of the extra expense, unless you've got money burning a hole in your pocket.  I don't personally do mastering, I can compress the final mix to make things louder/fuller if they're not being mastered, and will back off of it if they are.  I have had good experiences mastering with Alan Douches at West West Side in New York, and with Nick Zampiello at New Alliance in Boston, they are who I have worked the most with and have had bands bring their material to with successful results.

What are some of your favorite recordings and why?

WILL: This is tough, and I'm nor sure I can think of a definitive list by any means.  Off the top of my head:  Twelve Hour Turn - The Victory Of Flight, LP.  For one thing this record has one of my favorite snare sounds, besides that everything is well defined and has it's own space, but isn't really polished or too clean either.  It's also my favorite material by them, so that helps too!  Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Superwolf, LP.  I really love the dynamics of this record, overall it is very full and open.   The guitar tone at times has a borderline magical sparkle and chime to it that I think is essentially perfection.  Hail of Rage - Fucking Pissed, 7".  Perhaps a strange, or at least obscure, mention, but in my opinion this is one of the most brutal recordings and records ever.  The drums are probably actually too loud in the mix, but they are also the highlight of the band in my opinion as they are possibly the most intense drum performance on a punk/hardcore/grind record, so it works.  (Side note, the recent discography has additional guitars added and is re-mastered with the song order changed, so I would urge people to track down the actual 7" if interested)   Joan of Arc - The Gap, LP.  Somehow this album pulls off being extremely over-edited to a point of ridiculousness, yet still feels organic to me.  In general I'm not a fan of recording tricks that sound like they could never happen in real life, but I don't know, somehow it works really well in this context.  This album is pretty much genius in my book.  I could probably keep going, but I should also probably stop!  Honorable mentions go to The Exploding Hearts, The Clash, Kajun S.S., Union of Uranus (sort of the opposite of Hail of Rage with ridiculously loud guitars forming a soaring wall of sound), and on and on.

Do you also do live sound or have experience doing it? Would you ever be interested in doing this?

WILL: While I've helped run vocal mics at some d.i.y. shows, I wouldn't really count that as doing sound.  I've thought about it, but am not sure if I could handle the club atmosphere and dealing with what is probably a lot of music I'm uninterested in, but I might have a completely incorrect perspective on it.  I am sure it could be an interesting learning experience, and if the right opportunity came along I would probably check it out.

Recording seems to have always been a male dominated field. Why do you think this is?

WILL: My guess is that it stems from the fact that for whatever reason in our society women seem to be less encouraged to play music than men, which is unfortunate.  Hopefully at some point in time this will be the case, although I find it hard to tell how much is really changing.  It could be interesting to look at enrollment rates at recording schools though to get some perspective, if they have public records of such things. Ultimately I think it's important to encourage women with interest in recording and/or music to pursue these interests.

How much do you involve yourself in the projects you record?

WILL: This really depends on the project, ultimately I view my role when recording bands as someone archiving what they're creating, or what they wish to create, so I usually try to separate my task (recording their band) from their task (creating their music how they want).  This clearly isn't a strict separation and if something sounds funny to me or if I have an idea I'll mention it in passing, but I let the decision lie in the band's hands and I would never try to push my ideas on them.  I think it's important to let bands cultivate their own sounds and styles from such experiences rather than tell them how it's done or what is and isn't a bad sound or idea.  Usually the more I work with a certain band or person, the more I understand what they're about and the more we develop a mutual language which tends to lead to me being slightly more involved.   Still I always make sure that I'm not an additional member of their band or anything and that their decisions must always be their decisions.