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A longtime San Francisco Bay Area engineer and producer, Eli Crews has been quietly churning out utterly unique albums for the past decade. He is probably best known for his work with Deerhoof, Erase Errata and Why? He recently gained exposure with tUnE-yArDs as the shepherd of sound on their critically-acclaimed second record w h o k i l l (4AD), and with them has become one of the rare studio engineers to move on to touring front of house mix duties. As father, husband, and bassist for a number of studio and live projects, Eli is doubtlessly one of the busiest guys I've met. His working methods demonstrate how he can juggle these responsibilities, inspiring me as a developing engineer. In session, he is brutally efficient. Unique, powerful sounds appear on track seconds after a microphone is plugged in, and his intricately layered mixes come together almost as instantaneously. My association with Eli has been both enlightening and humbling. In 2009, I heard that he'd been tracking and mixing my friends Man/Miracle for their debut LP The Shape of Things. When the sessions were finished, the band had one last song they wanted to include, as well as an instrumental interlude. We tracked and mixed both of these at my warehouse project studio, Shipwreck, in Oakland. The difference was clear: given the exact same taut songwriting and crack players, Eli's mixes achieved a visceral impact and depth in each frequency range that would take me another two years to begin to approach. I was floored at the difference, and grateful for the attentive mastering work of Myles Boisen. After that experience, I immediately began interning with Eli at his studio, New, Improved Recording in North Oakland, to see what I could learn.
What were your first recording experiences?
I started using cassette 4-tracks in high school, and after that I had a reel-to-reel 1/4-inch 4-track. I was just recording my own sound collage stuff, not necessarily songs, per se. I discovered that if you put the microphone inside a tin can and sing into that you get a certain sound. If you use the microphone as a drum stick, you get a certain sound. I was heavily influenced by The Residents' early records, which were largely about experimenting with recording. They were messing around with the tape, tracking at different speeds, and using a lot of effects. Early Devo, too, their 4-track stuff.
What was it like for you when you first started recording bands?
Nerve-wracking. As soon as I shifted over to recording with other people involved, there became this stress factor of needing to get it right. If you didn't get it right - which I didn't at first - then the band would get pissed and you'd end up going and spending money to record anyway. I was in a band called the Roofies, a '60s garage girl-band kind of thing, and we got the chance to record at The Plant in Sausalito in 2000. Our friend Billy was an intern at The Plant, so he hooked it up. I think we had to pay some ridiculously small fee, like $100 a day. We toured the room that Sly Stone worked in, and sat in the hot tub that Stevie Nicks used to sit in. It blew my mind. The Plant has the '70s dripping from it... the hot tub especially. That session gave me a shot in the arm for wanting to be involved in recording. Just seeing the Neve console in there and hearing the sounds that we got out of it. I still managed to screw that up though; I took the two-inch tape and dumped it onto my computer and mixed it myself at home. I wish that we had actually followed through and mixed it there.
When you're a band member with some recording chops, it can be both tempting and difficult to mix your own work.
One drag is that economic concerns often trump sonic or fidelity concerns. I use that as a cautionary tale now when discussing budgets with bands: for most bands the mix is not a good place to save money. I'm generally happier with records that people track on their own that I then mix, than I am with records that I record in the studio and people mix on their own.
I've heard you say that you're not as interested in making perfect albums as you are in making unique albums.
I think that the perfect albums already exist. Everyone has his or her own idea of what a perfect album is, but it's less interesting to me to try to emulate that. It's more important to create something interesting than to create something "good," because I think interesting is more universal. If art is interesting it's going to be interesting to a lot of people. If it's "good," it's only going to be interesting to people who are interested in "good" art. Maybe it's just that records that contain unique timbres and ambiences affect me more emotionally than those that sound like other records we've been listening to forever. And it's not a fidelity issue - I'm equally as uncommitted to lo-fi as I am to hi-fi. I'm not interested in a certain level of fidelity as a trademark or as a lifestyle. My role is conveying a given performance in a compelling way, rather than just exhibiting the performance with a certain specific relationship to fidelity.
Like the server who presents a platter to the restaurant patron with a particular layout and flourish.
Or maybe the "seasoner." Somebody else is the cook, but at the end I get to choose whether it's going to have paprika or sage on it. And that's going to make a huge difference, but it's not going to alter the fact that it's either lamb or tofu. It's just going to color the perception of the person eating the food.
Tell me about your membership in Beulah [Tape Op #22], and how New, Improved Recording began. It seems like those were intertwined.
They were. I started this studio in 2003, while I was the bass player in Beulah. It was the first time I was in a band that did real touring, and it opened up my horizons. I was exposed to a lot of other musicians and insular scenes around the country and the world that I hadn't seen before. We would show up in some town and people would come up and hand us their demos. I was impressed that all these kids in these towns all across the world were recording their own music. I had thought of it as being so personal to myself up until then. That was also when I started reading Tape Op and online forums, and I started thinking of it as more of a community. I was developing my skills to the point that I felt like I had something I could offer other people. Around that same time John Finkbeiner - a good friend of mine with whom I had played in bands for years - was having the same feeling, so we opened NIR together. He and I had done an internship with Myles Boisen [Tape Op #30] at Guerrilla Recording in Oakland, which had changed my idea of what was possible. We saw that Myles could make a living doing this thing and that he could achieve a high level of quality in a relatively modest situation. I knew that was the road I wanted to go down. I knew I didn't want to just go and get an internship at The Plant, or at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley - I wanted to do it myself. I knew it would be harder that way in some respects because I would be learning a lot more on the job.
And be putting a lot more of your own money into it.
When you decide "I'm going to open up a studio," people are coming in and expecting a certain level of quality because they're spending money with you. That's a different kind of pressure than being an intern or being an assistant to an engineer somewhere.
Studio ownership puts you in a spot where you have to force yourself to deliver as opposed to just helping other people along.
Being an assistant is really hard work. But when you're the only one having to answer to people, you have to get your shit together a little quicker. When the clock is ticking, you are absolutely obligated to come up with efficient solutions to problems. I think it was Steve Albini who has a quote that a recording engineer's job is really just problem-solving. I think that's a reductionist way of looking at it, but there's a huge part of the job that is problem-solving. When something isn't working right, you need to solve that problem. When something is working right, you need to solve the problem by not fucking with it. Which is something that has taken me a long time to learn: Don't fuck with something that's already right. The hard part is learning to recognize when it's right.
In addition to running NIR you've done a fair amount of tracking and mixing at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. What was your first experience there?
As a musician. The last two Beulah records were recorded at Tiny Telephone, The Coast is Never Clear and Yoko. They weren't mixed there - they were mixed in Nashville. I got to go check out some fancy Nashville studios for the Yoko mix. The fantastic Roger Moutenout [Tape Op #20] mixed it. Hanging out with Roger and seeing how he works was really a huge influence on me.
What were the primary things that you took away from your experience with Moutenout?
I think one of the things is that he's not precious. He doesn't regard things in a white glove kind of way. He really gets his hands dirty. He's goal-oriented, not process-oriented. He doesn't care how he gets there, which I admired. It's like, "This just has to work and we'll make it work however we can." He takes the task at hand seriously and gets things done without worrying much about if he's doing things the right way, so to speak.
How did you acquire enough equipment to run a commercial studio?
It has taken a long time. For years we reinvested most of the money we were making back into gear. We made a decision a few years back to not buy gear that we weren't going to want for a really long time. So that's when we got the Millennia 8-channel HV3D and the Pro Tools HD system. Chandler gear - there's no upgrade path from Chandler; you can only go sideways from there. You can get different flavors, but you can't get anything better than a TG1 limiter.
Do you have an eventual goal, gear-wise?
I don't think anyone could possibly have that - like an end point where you stop buying gear? We're at a point with equipment now where I feel that if I can't make a good record with what we have, I should probably quit. I can't blame anything on gear anymore - I can only blame it on myself. There are pieces of gear I would love to have, but I don't think anything else is essential. Mostly I buy instruments these days, like analog synthesizers, a '60s Ludwig drum kit or an old Estey folding pump organ.
Bob Hodas helped you tune your control room. When did you decide that you needed to have the room tuned and how did you go about doing it?
Well, my mixes weren't translating. I would spend 10 hours in here mixing and I would get home and it sounded like shit. And then the mastering engineer would say, "Hmm, sounds like you're not hearing 120 Hz very well in your room," or "Boy, there's a lot of 2.5 kHz in there." So I realized I should probably do something about our monitoring. Also, I had done a lot of gear reviews over the years so there was kind of a revolving door of speakers that were coming through here for a while. We finally landed on two sets of speakers that I really love: the ADAM P22As and the Bag End M6s - that was essential. But even so, the mixes still weren't translating, so I knew it wasn't the speakers' fault anymore - it was how they were placed in the room. That's when it became clear that we needed Bob in here. He spent a day with us and it's the best $800 we've ever spent. We moved speakers around, set different calibration levels on the Dangerous Monitor ST and adjusted the on-board speaker settings a little bit.
Wait, I thought when you tune a room, I thought that was putting up all the treatment...
It could be. We didn't really need anything. This room was actually purpose-built for being a control room even before we moved in here, so for us it was speaker placement and calibration level between the subwoofer and the mains. Beyond that, you can get into acoustic treatment of the room and EQ on your monitors. If we bought a high-end stereo parametric EQ, we could get a little closer, but we're so close to flat that he said, "If you want to spend the money on it, great. If not, just learn that little bump there around 160 Hz." But also, where you stand in the room makes a big difference. No room is absolutely flat everywhere in the room. So it may be flat in the sweet spot and you move a foot back and it changes. In order to learn it, though, you need a solid starting place.
So this setup is very particular - you don't move those speakers.
Oh, no. Nobody touches them. And that's when I stopped doing monitor reviews for magazines.
What's the size of your live room? For Scott Pinkmountain's record [The Full Sun] you had the equivalent of an entire symphony orchestra in there.
Currently, the live room is 18' by 24'. But we tracked that record before we built our two iso booths, so the room was larger. I think we managed to record 29 people playing in one room at the same time. There was a string section, a brass section, reed sections. There was one bassoon, and a bunch of clarinets ranging from contrabass clarinet to soprano clarinet. I just did kind of a sectional. I did close-mic the bassoon, but the bleed was pretty ridiculous. And then Matt Cunitz was playing celeste, which strikes these bars that are super-loud, so that was bleeding into everything. Really close to him were an upright bass, piano and drums. So there was a quasi-jazz trio in the midst of this orchestra. For some of it we ended up moving the drummer outside into the hall - he was the only one isolated, and only on one song. Over the course of making the record, Scott brought in six different ensembles. One was an 11-piece ensemble with a bunch of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones.
How did you gather such a variety of musicians?
Scott's lived in the Bay Area on and off for 15 years or so, and I've lived here for 20 years, and we both went to Mills College to study music. So between the two of us we know a ton of people who will come and play on an experimental big band pop record for fun. It's pretty amazing. Having 29 musicians in a room for a full day of recording and not having to pay them is a luxury most people don't have.
This tracking process sounds quite challenging.
The Full Sun was probably the biggest challenge I've had in terms of making a record. All the initial tracking was to tape. We ended up transferring it later to Pro Tools to mix, but I find that recording large numbers of tracks to tape is easier, actually, partly because you don't have to watch out for clipping so closely, and you get some compression off the tape itself. The biggest challenge of his record for me was taking a bunch of different lineups - on some songs, there would be a regular rock quintet - bass, drums, guitar, keys, whatever - and turning that into a cohesive record during the mix. Recording 29 people quickly is tough, but you just put up a bunch of mics and hope for the best. Mixing that and trying to fit it on the same record as a stripped-down pop song, that's where the real challenge came in.
You've done a lot of live-in-the-studio work in the past three years. The New, Improved, LIVE sessions for The Bay Bridged [http://www.thebaybridged.com/] are quite diverse; what's it like capturing a song in two or three takes?
I've had to develop my techniques for recording bands live in the studio over the course of doing these sessions. I got really lucky on the first one - the band was Deerhoof [Tape Op #55] and their playing is so concise that it lent itself well to being in that situation with everybody in the same room. Their level of musicianship made my job easier. I've had a couple of sessions with six, seven people, and the more people you add in the same room obviously the tougher it gets. But really what it comes down to is accepting the limitations and working with them rather than fighting them. So you got a lot of drum bleed in your vocal mic - live with it. Don't try to gate it or EQ it out. You can filter the low end out here or there but you just live with a live drum sound and be happy with it and know that that's what the session is supposed to sound like. There are some tricks here or there, but mostly I just try to make it sound like they're all playing live in the same room, which they are. In some ways it's easier than a mix where everything's isolated, because you already have your room sound - you don't have to manufacture one. Sometimes the bleed helps when there's bass in the drum mics; it helps that bass sound integrate into the drums.
What are some other live sessions that you enjoyed?
Thao Nguyen, with the Get Down Stay Down. That was really fantastic - they just played incredibly well together live in the studio setting. It was already fully realized. I didn't really have to do a lot to it: put a little ambience around her vocals, make the snare drum snappy, and the rest was there. Thao & Mirah did one, and that was a blast, too. Miles Kurosky [from Beulah] did one for the release of his solo record The Desert of Shallow Effects, which I co-produced and mixed. That's a record I'm very proud of, by the way - it took us a few years but it was worth it. His backing band for the session was all the guys from Beulah; it was a great kind of quasi-reunion for us. Yoni Wolf from Why? had been working on a solo set of material, so I asked him if he wanted to do it here as part of the series. That was a really special one, because it was just him singing and accompanying himself on a piano, Rhodes or Hammond organ. It was a more direct connection with his songwriting than you usually get in his records, which are thick with production - in a good way, of course.
Both Deerhoof and Why? are bands that use pronounced production in the mix. What are the contrasts between recording those two bands?
Although both bands have clear visions of what they want from their recordings, my experience working with those two bands is almost opposite. With Deerhoof I've been involved in the earlier stages on some material and kind of the mid-stages on other material, like doing overdubs or vocals, and then they take it off and make it amazing themselves. They are incredibly adept at doing their own mixing, unlike any other band I know. My relationship with Why? is different. For both records that I've mixed for them [Alopecia and Eskimo Snow], the tracking was done by somebody else, and my role was mostly about finding spaces for everything to live within the mix with delays and reverbs and other effects. They have been very open to some pretty extreme treatments, which is always fun. But with Deerhoof, my role has been more kind of, "Hey, here are some sounds that you can check out and use if you want." For the vocals on Offend Maggie we set up five different mics on Satomi.
Offend Maggie has a wide variety of vocal sounds. What did you set up?
We rented a Telefunken Ela M 251 from Steven Jarvis for the main vocal and then we had a cheap Sony Walkman mic set up next to that. We had a cinderblock on the piano sustain pedal and a mic inside for a piano reverb sound. And we had a couple other room mics around. They walked away with five vocal tracks for every take, for every song, so they had a large amount of material to sift through. That's the way they work; they're meticulous. Any given mic may have been used for one moment of one song and then muted for the rest of the record. But the main thing with that record is they just really wanted to have one pristine vocal signal which they felt like they'd never quite gotten, that ultra-hi-fi vocal sound.
When you're recording a bunch of mics on a single-point source like a vocal, how do you put them together in a mix?
In addition to taking time with placement, I have a couple of tools I use to get the phase aligned properly. One is the Little Labs IBP. The [Little Labs] LMNOpre also has the phase circuit on it, and then I have the UAD IBP plug-in...
You can adjust phase in the box as well.
Exactly. But for the Deerhoof session they were handling all that on that end so I just told them to watch out for phase. I told them at any given point they may only want to have one mic or they can go in and phase align it in the DAW just by moving it around, or they can stick a delay on one of the tracks, to get it more into a slap-back range. And then sometimes it sounds good to have shit out of phase.
I noticed you doing that when you track bass. You'll not necessarily go for getting the DI in phase with the mic, you'll just go for whatever the best sound is.
Often I find that when I dial in the IBP to sound good, I can zoom in on the track in Pro Tools and it looks wrong. It looks like your waveforms are actually out of phase. But if I go line it up it sounds too boomy; there's too much low end.
So this is a good example of using your ears.
Yeah, it's a fucking great example of using your ears over using your eyes.
In 2010, you recorded tUnE-yArDs' second album, w h o k i l l. This album stands out for me as having an especially dynamic, energetic, creative mix. What did you do in this recording process that you hadn't done previously?
In the first place, Merrill [Garbus] is one of the most dynamic, energetic, creative performers I've ever seen, much less worked with. But specifically, what I did differently on this record was actively attempt to be unhindered by technique. I tried to throw out what I knew about how vocals and drums were supposed to sound on records. Of course, you can never really accomplish that, but what you hear in a fair amount of w h o k i l l is the product of me trying to forget how to make a standard recording.
You've been spending a lot of time on the road with tUne-yArDs lately as their FOH engineer. What's it like going from recording engineer to touring engineer, and what made you take that leap with this band in particular?
It's never something that I had felt compelled to do before Merrill and Nate [Brenner, bassist] asked me. With a family, I hadn't considered touring as an option, but the music is just too special to not want to be around every night. Touring is hard work, and it has completely different rewards than making records. The energy from a really good show is a rush that I rarely get in the studio, but so much of doing live sound is more difficult, since you're dealing with a different setup and different room every night of the week, not to mention dealing with bloody feedback! Plus, it's so much energy expended just for that hour and a half of real work. I don't see wanting to make an overall shift in my career, but I do love traveling with tUnE-yArDs quite a bit.
You seem to have mastered the art of providing clarity in a mix by putting intensely disparate sounds together like puzzle pieces. Where do you go from here?
I think that a good goal in making records is to have each of the elements firmly rooted in its own place. I only feel like I've gotten a handle on that in the past couple of years - I spent 10 years trying to do that. Everyone has their own development and it took a really long time before I felt good about what I do. I'm not trying to sound self-deprecating or self-consciously humble or anything, I'm just saying this is a whole process and I haven't really achieved anything, in the grand scheme of things. I'm somewhere along my process, and I haven't gotten anywhere yet. Maybe there are people who've gotten there. Oz Fritz [Tape Op #75], he's gotten there, although I'm sure he still feels like he's learning and developing. I think the engineers who stick with this thing and try every day to improve what they do are the ones that the rest of us recognize and admire. It's just so easy to get discouraged when you're trying to make excellent records, because not every one of them is going to be excellent, for whatever reason. Sometimes it's your fault, sometimes it's the band's fault, sometimes it's nobody's fault. You just can't beat yourself up too much when you feel like something didn't achieve the level that you think it could have, because it's very rarely going to.