|Jonathan Schenke’s Gear: Deltalab Effectron|
Jonathan Schenke, sound engineer and music lover, recorded the debut album of Brooklyn indie rock buzz band Parquet Courts, entitled ‘Light Up Gold’ (streaming above). We asked him a few question about that experience.
– Tell us a little about the studios you work in and how you got started as a sound engineer.
I’m a partner at Doctor Wu’s studio in Williamsburg, with Yale Yng-Wong and Jake Aron. I also have a mobile recording rig and a home studio for editing and mixing, which is how we did Light Up Gold.
I was always an obsessive music fan growing up, but I didn’t get into recording until college. I was studying at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, OH, and made up a major to get into the audio classes at the Cleveland Institute of Music. I also interned at a local studio, setting up mics and wrapping cables… just trying to take in everything that was happening.
I really got started as a sound engineer when I started playing in a band, though. I bought an interface for my laptop, a few mics that had been recommended to me, and borrowed the rest to start making a record. It was all done in fits and spurts, total trial and error on my part – I think it was close to two years, start to finish. I figured out a lot in the process though, and once I had the gear, I started recording my friends’ bands.
After college, I moved to Chicago and started recording at Experimental Sound Studio and doing live sound at clubs like the Empty Bottle and the Hideout. I moved to Brooklyn in 2010, and helped open Doctor Wu’s last year.
– Tell us about the process of recording the Parquet Courts record – was it a band easy to work with? Were you involved as a sound engineer or also producer? How do you think the band’s sound evolved after the recording (if it did)?
The guys in Parquet Courts are hands-down some of my favorite people to work with – there’s something really special about it. Andrew and I met making the Fergus & Geronimo record ‘Funky Was the State of Affairs,’ and Austin and I have also worked on his side-project The Keepsies. We’ve all got overlapping aesthetics and similar work flows and ethics… it’s a lot of work, but it’s a whole lot of fun. We’re actually recording some new stuff down at Seaside Lounge while I’m writing this, and it’s been a total blast.
We spent three days in their practice space recording Light Up Gold on Austin’s Tascam 388 – this mid-80s 8-track 1/4″ tape machine with a built-in mixer, like a coffee-table-sized Portastudio with a totally unique sound. We did all the basics live in one day, vocals the next, and overdubs the third. Since we only had 8 tracks, I used a little Mackie mixer to submix the drums down to two channels, and we’d have everyone around one mic for things like percussion and background vocals. I transferred the tracks through my Apogee Ensemble to my laptop, and we spent two days mixing it at my place. By the end of that second day, we had the album sequencing down and everything – it still amazes me how quickly that record came together.
My production style is like a guide or an enabler. I feel that a big part of my role in the process is to maintain an environment of forward motion. A lot of that is getting the technical side handled quickly and out of the way – auditioning sounds during a run-through, making decisions, and fixing or working around problems before they derail things (something doing live sound really hammered home for me). Time management is also really important in keeping the momentum going. I’m trying to get us to a point where we all can work off intuition, through experimentation, and allow for creativity.
With Parquet Courts, we’re always pushing each other to do more during recording. A number of songs on Light Up Gold they’d only played once or twice before – they’d work out the structure, we’d lay down a good take, Andrew would leave the room to write some lyrics, and come back to belt them out a half hour later. I think in those cases, they learned to play the songs based on the recordings. We’re doing some of that this time again, except they’re that much tighter after playing so many shows since Light Up Gold dropped.
– What pieces of advice would you give to a band that’s entering the studio for the first time?
What do you want your recording to sound like? Pick some records that you like and draw inspiration from, and play them for your engineer. That is one of the most helpful things for me before a session.
– How do you work with bands to determine the direction and style of their recordings?
Before we even book time, I like to have a long chat about that, whether it’s over a drink or over the phone. We’ll talk about records we like and approaches to sounds, bounce ideas back and forth, and see what kind of common ground we share. It’s a good way to get to know someone a bit before trying to work with them, and it helps in planning an approach.
– Do you have a particular mixing/engineering style that you’re personally drawn toward? What techniques do you employ to recreate it?
I got into music the year punk broke, so that whole Alternative Nation sound is imprinted heavily on my mind. Sonically and stylistically, there’s something really special about how recordings from the 70s sound. And I wouldn’t be doing what I do if I hadn’t been obsessed with Sgt Pepper as a kid. Brian Eno, Steve Albini, and the Beatles – that’s where I’m coming from.
I’m drawn to that articulate, wild and wooly sound. Whether it’s two guys playing acoustic guitars, a punk band, or a piece of sound design, I want it to sound almost tangible and slightly larger than life. That’s what gets me excited about listening to something.
My general approach is to start with everyone playing together in a room, recording to tape if we can. I’ll baffle things in such a way to cut down on bleed, but I’m not precious about total isolation. I don’t go overboard on mics – I get better definition and less phase issues that way. 5-6 mics on the drums, one on each amp, and maybe a couple of room mics. I’ll audition a few different setups, pick the best sounds in context, and roll with it. Once we have a good foundation, I like to add vocals and overdubs starting with the most important ones. That helps to see how things are working together and often inspires better ideas for other additions.
I like to approach my mixes as a series of refinements. I’ll get a sound dialed in fairly quickly to see how things hang together. If something is sticking out or in the way, I’ll make an edit or cut some frequencies or ride the level, whatever that situation calls for. Editing arrangements is really important to me – every part should have its own place in the mix, and it’s really easy to clutter a song with extraneous overdubs. But by treating my mix as a series of refinements, I only tweak as much as feels right. You could always do more editing if you wanted to, but those oddities and imperfections are what make a recording feel real.
– What are the pieces of equipment that you find particularly inspiring?
The most inspiring piece of equipment is whatever is around and working!
I always love tracking to tape. It sounds great, and it requires a particular way of working. It forces you to commit – you have to give it your all as a performer to get the right take, and it keeps me on my toes and engaged as an engineer. My new favorite is the Otari MX 5050 ½” 8 track (pictured). It’s the machine that a lot of the early Sub Pop and Daptone records were done on, and it’s what we’re recording the new Parquet Courts stuff to.
Effects-wise, I’m a big fan of delays. I love my Deltalab Effectron – it has a great echo and doubler with modulation, but you can also infinitely repeat a sample and totally whack out the sound. The solo in “Yonder” on Light Up Gold is me playing some feedback through the Effectron. We have an AMS DMX Delay at Doctor Wu’s that is incredible… it’s the Martin Hannett/Joy Division delay, and completely unlike anything else I’ve heard. I’m also a big fan of the Vallhalla Ubermod and Sound Toys EchoBoy plugins.
– What one piece of hardware/software would you most like to add to your recording/engineering setup (cost not an issue)? Why?
I’m lucky that I work at a place like Doctor Wu’s – the gear collection there is so solid, I’m never at a loss for good sounds. We just got a Bricasti M7 reverb that I’m dying to dig into… everything I’ve heard through it sounds amazing.
– Do you use guitar pedals for mixing?
Not really. I’ll fool around with pedal chains to get a good sound during recording, but I tend to stick with plugins at home or the outboard at Doctor Wu’s for mixing.
– With bands doing more of everything themselves these days (DIY recording, performing, self-promoting, etc.) and the evermore multimedia nature of the world, how has the landscape changed for studios/sound engineers? Any predictions for what we’ll be seeing in the next few years in this industry?
A lot of my recordings have been made in living rooms, practice spaces and other non-studio environments. It can be inspiring to work like that, and often the only way to make things happen on a budget.
It’s awesome that gear is so cheap and widely available now, and I’m a big proponent of doing things yourself. But it seems as though there’s been a backlash against that cheap digital sound that’s so prevalent in modern home recordings. People are wanting more out of the sound of their records. Budgets are still tight, but I think there’s a lot you can do based on your recording process to get a cool sound.
My hope is that internet streaming reaches a more sustainable royalty structure in the next few years. More and more, it’s becoming the way people listen to music, and it should be monetized in a way to reflect that. Once artists and labels are making more money off their recordings, they’ll spend more money to make them.
– What do you find to be the most challenging aspects of the recording/sound engineering process? On the flipside, what aspects are the most rewarding?
Honestly, I think the most rewarding aspects are the challenges. I’m a very process oriented engineer, and I truly believe you learn the most through experimentation. I made a decision early on to try something new on every session… it might suck, but it could also be your new favorite thing. I love a challenge – whether it’s only 8 tracks on a tape or a mobile setup in a cabin, it will make you think differently about your sounds.
– What advice would you give to a musician who wants to start a career as an engineer/producer?
Get some decent recording gear used for cheap. Experiment with your own band on your own time. Offer to record your friends’ bands for cheap, or for free, or barter (I’ve got yoga lessons, gear repaired, and a music video made in exchange for recordings). Do some live sound to get your chops up and meet new bands. Learn and take care of the technical aspects first so you can stop worrying about them. Be a judicious editor – if it doesn’t serve a purpose in a mix, it’s not worth keeping. Use less reverb. And have fun!!