I didn't expect Andrew Schneider's Brooklyn studio to be on a tree-lined residential corner: Unsane records happen here and nobody calls the cops??? But, as it turns out, it's entirely possible to have a studio on a block filled with brownstones and restaurants. Apparently floated floors, friendly neighbors, and New York City's built-in 24-hour white noise generator all help. Andrew got his start in the mid-'90s, playing bass and screaming for Boston noise rockers Slughog. Now based in Park Slope, he spends most of his time making fantastic-sounding loud rock records for bands like Unsane, Keelhaul, Made Out Of Babies, and Cave In. He also plays bass in Brooklyn's PIGS, works as a freelancer for Blue Man Productions (see our interview with Todd Perlmutter) and has a new online label, Coextinction, co-founded with Chris Spencer and Dave Curran (Unsane) and James Paradise (Players Club). Coextinction Recordings has released an EP every month for the past year, each tracked and mixed by Andrew in quick, John Peel Session-inspired, bursts. Andrew and I talked for a few hours in his Translator Audio control room while his dog and honorary co-producer, Brady, napped in the live room.
You started at New Alliance in Boston, right? That's when you were playing in Slughog...
Indeed. I was the asshole in the band who had to bring the 4-track to every practice and make sure that every mic was set up. Then I bought an Otari MX- 5050 8-track. That was my portable rig that I would bring around to all the bands' practice spaces in Boston. Then I started interning at New Alliance — Slughog owed the studio some money. This is actually how I got into it. We were broke. I was like, "Dudes, we're good people but we have no money. What can I do?" I interned for about a year and then started bringing in bands. I got my first official staff engineer job there in 1994. At some point it clicked that I could actually do this as a living. [Eventually] I took over as head engineer — the owner [Andrew Murdock, a.k.a. Mudrock] had made a couple of big records, moved out to L.A., and put me in charge. As head engineer I tried real hard to focus that studio more on the music that I liked. I brought in bands like Old Man Gloom, Converge and Cave In.
Then you moved to New York and opened your own room.
I moved down here in 2003. I tried to be freelance for a while, and I had work from around the country, as well as internationally. But studio prices in NYC versus indie budgets — it didn't line up, even before the collapse of the economy. It made sense for me to have some sort of home base. I set up the first Translator Audio in Williamsburg as a small mix room. I've moved at the end of every lease. [laughs] This is number three — we'll see what happens in three and a half years.
Do you find that your sessions are getting shorter? Cheaper?
Budgets are definitely down. Sessions are a little shorter. I've had to be a little bit savvier on how to make a record and still have something that we're all proud of in the end.
That's a challenge. Even if somebody's trying to talk you down on your rate they still want your best work.
It's not just in terms of the band and budget, but also for me personally — I don't want to put out something that I'm not proud of. I'm an art school kid. I approach records that way. So if budgets are down by maybe a third, what is it in my process that has to change to make sure that I'm still doing work that I'm proud of, and that the bands are proud of?
Can you quantify some of those process changes?
There are ways in which I'll work extra — I'll put in a couple long days or I'll say, "For this mix to work just leave me alone for a day. You don't have to pay for it. I just want to do it so I know I'm set and then we can go." Also you become pretty savvy at scheduling, and understanding what you can realistically do in the amount of time.
So maybe you won't go looking for the perfect clean guitar tone for one little part.
That's right. Something I've been wrestling with a lot — and I'm not 100 percent sure of my own philosophy — but the whole idea of spending three years on a record, and trying to make the perfect record, is ridiculous in today's disposable culture of downloading music and downloading songs instead of full records. People will talk about King of Limbs until the next Radiohead record comes out — there are a few records like that. But, for the most part, from a music lover's point of view, the investment in a record is so much shorter than it used to be. So I've been trying to change my whole thought process. I've been into trying to make things move faster, and not letting people invest too much in the "perfect" anything. Perfect records are boring records anyway.
That's the funny part. Rock records, especially.
With recording strategies these days the ability to make the perfect album is there so easily, if you have the time to do it. I look back at all the records I love and what I love about them — it's always the fucked up moments, not the perfect ones. Then you think about records that wouldn't have been made today because the mindset wasn't there; like Locust Abortion Technician by the Butthole Surfers. That's my ultimate example. That record is broken from the second the needle goes down until the end of the last song. There is nothing "right" about that record. Even if they were in the same mindset, I don't think it would be made today because the process is so different. The first Sonic Youth record — there was no super musicianship there. That record never would've happened if somebody was like, "Oh, you guys aren't quite up to snuff, compared to other bands. Therefore I am going to replace this." Imagine if Bob Bert's drumming was lined up. Jesus Christ... Speeding up my process and not letting myself get bogged down helps force some of that to happen. There are always discussions with the bands — it's obviously a real personal decision as to what's a good fuck up and what's just a fuck up. But if you push things along don't let yourself get mired in this idea of perfection you'll make a better record anyway. What makes this work is guiding the artists through to getting the right performances. I try really hard with the bands that I am recording to make it come from them. I know this sounds basic, but I also know a lot of people think they will just fix stuff later. In vocals, for instance, I try to make sure the pitch, the delivery, building up of tension, release and vibe all comes from their performance. Same with the drummer — working on consistency, tempo and vibe. This is the stuff that makes those timeless records timeless. It isn't in the technology as much as it is in the performance.
Along similar lines — looking around your room, it's a respectably modest set of gear. If you read Internet forums, they're all about gear, gear, gear. And, of course, lots of engineers are on a never-ending upgrade cycle. It doesn't look like that's your style.
Tape Op interviewed the guys at Hi-n-Dry Studios [Tom Dube, #62] a couple of years ago and that one quote: "I want to make better music with what I have" — that was cool. I definitely have what I need. There are times where I would love to have more. You can easily be caught up in the gear whirlwind, especially with plug-ins. I'm trying to get away from using plug- ins right now. I hear presets everywhere on the radio, or when I buy records. I don't fly a flag just for tape, or just for Pro Tools, but right now I want to get away from things that have presets. I've been trying to limit myself in ways that will make cool and unique results. I recently set up a system where I can bump up levels for a bunch of stompboxes so I can do something that's gonna sound different from everything I hear. The decision to do that came from going back and listening to old records I did before using Pro Tools. I heard a bunch of places I went to that I would have not gone to a couple of years ago with a screen in front of me.
How do you like your Harrison 3624 console?
This thing's an old beater. There's a reason why there's not a lot of them around anymore — because they're not made well. [laughs] But they sound great. I wanted a medium-sized console that had a large format sound that was also good for tracking and mixing. I started doing some research on these Harrison consoles and I fell in love with them. It's a transformer-based console — I wanted to steer away from as many [IC] chips as I could. Other than the automation stuff (which has been totally disconnected) the signal path is remarkably simple, which is always my go-to philosophy for any pure signal chain. My [tracking] signal chain is usually very, very simple. I do microphone to preamp to input. I don't compress much going in. I definitely don't like to EQ then. That's all in the mix for me.
I notice you have almost no outboard EQ in your racks.
I don't. I EQ on the board a lot. Compression is always something that I've loved, and I have a bunch of nice mic preamps.
So, since you mix on the board without automation — when you're mixing records where somebody sends you tracks from Europe, you'll have to do revisions over the Internet. Do you wait for one song to get approved before doing the next one?
Wow, so if there're ten songs and a one day turnaround for feedback...
Well, we work to schedule listening times on purpose. I'll say, "I'll have this song done by [my] dinnertime, and I'll email it to you. You tell me what you want." By the time I'm done eating I have a page of notes. I do that and send it to them.
It forces decision-making.
Yeah, people can get into endless lists of revisions. Or, maybe on song nine, they say, "I'm listening to song one and I didn't really think about it before, but my kick drum could be little louder..."
Sorry, no it can't!
[laughs] "You didn't say that eight days ago!" I do stem out pretty intensively on mixes. I started doing that a while ago. I don't like to use stems, but knowing they're there is great in this process. Once every couple of records it'll save some situation. It's never quite the same, but it has definitely saved me.
Your mixes consistently have this richness in the low-mids. Can you explain how you get that?
I come from a history of playing bass. That was the thing that got the most neutered amongst a lot of loud, heavy recordings. Maybe that's in the back of my mind — I'm the dude who's gonna bring the bass guitar back to rock recording!
Do you do a lot of carving to make low- end work?
Nope. I think it just naturally happens. I don't think there's anything specific, in terms of me focusing on that area. When mixing, I do try to find the sweet spot on the console's master section. If you push the output section too hard and things start to saturate too much, that big and open low end goes away. In terms of bass [guitar] in particular, for people who use a lot of distortion, the "scoop" button is a bad mistake. Having some amount of low to midrange information on the bass — you'll never end up hearing it, but it's what your ears connect to when you listen to a mix. Then you feel the low end, so it feels like there's bass down low. I keep a lot of midrange information on the bass, and on detuned guitars as well.
Where? Maybe 400 Hz to 1 kHz?
A little bit lower — probably around 300 to 900 Hz. I love bumping guitars between about 750 and 900 Hz. My problem with all my mixes, and I joke about it with mastering engineers — is always around 125 Hz. I've got a big piece of shit right there that they have to take out.
How do you track bass these days?
I usually throw up a few different mic choices and blend them from song to song. Then, if something needs to be disgusting, I'll favor the disgusting mic. If the tempo is slower and more open, I can use more of the low-end mic. I'll use a typical bass mic, like an [AKG] D112 or an [Audio-Technica] ATM25, then a condenser that might be quicker and smoother. Then I'll use something really nasty, like a [Shure] SM57 — something that'll get the gnarly part. I usually like to mix up the preamps as well. Some smoother ones are going to catch a more hi- fi vibe, and grindier ones — those old [API] 312 cards are great for that. I hate using a DI, so it's almost always just mics. I realized that all these sounds I was getting before I could see anything [on a computer] — sure, they weren't phase perfect, but they're awesome, right? So, for the last year or so, I've been trying to stop phase correcting anything.
Did you used to do a lot of phase correction?
For a while I was getting into it, trying to get the tightest sound possible. But if you're engineering right, and you're checking your phase when you're setting up, and you get it to where it sounds like it is about as good as it's going to be — I'm sure if you put it on the computer, you're gonna be five or three samples off of perfect. But you never fuckin' thought about that before and it sounded gnarly.
I love your drum sounds.
I was lucky. One of the few people that I put on a pedestal early on was this guy in Boston named Carl Plaster. He produced and engineered a bunch of records. He produced a couple of the Come records in the '90s. He hated producing and pretty much got out of it.
He did the Slughog records too.
He did, because we just fell in love with his production. He basically got out of it entirely, except he loved drum tech'ing. So he was this drum tech around town. He was this incredibly humble guy who undercharged all the time — worse business sense than me. Here I was, two or three years into recording, hiring this dude who's truly gifted. I tried to examine everything he was doing. He also drum tech'd on those Blue Man Group records, which obviously is a world of drums and percussion. I forced myself to be a student under him for a while. That was massive. The dude just has skills like you don't see anymore. He has perfect pitch. We'd be in the middle of a take and he'd say, "Ah, hold on. The snare drum slipped. It's a half step below the root note of the song." He runs out, tunes it back up, and it sounds fucking incredible.
Do you apply a lot of those lessons, day to day?
Do you tell a band that you're going to need an hour with their drums when they come in?
I don't want to cap a drummer in the knees before he even starts. Usually I say, "Get comfortable. Set it up the way you feel is right." Then we'll start to change as we go along. I'm not a perfect drum tuner or anything — I've just learned a lot of tricks. My [drum] tracking process — again, I don't use a lot of EQ or compression to tape. It's just mic, mic placement, preamp and then recording format. That means making sure that the drum sounds really good. I could go into specifics, but it's so dependent on the problems you face. A lot of it has to do with tuning and treating the drum. It's amazing how 20 minutes on a snare drum can change a whole record.
How about your drum mic'ing setups?
I throw up a bunch of options that I can use later. I've picked up more and more tricks. The hardest thing for me — with the ability to have so many tracks — is I never shave off old tricks. I just keep adding more tracks of new tricks, with the idea that I'll make the decisions when I mix. For instance, I usually set up two sets of wide stereo room mics. One pair is as high as the stands will go, pointing against some wall or corner reflective surface, using darker large diaphragm mics through chunky preamps. [Neumann] U87s are good. AKG SolidTubes are what I use at my place. U47s never work in this situation for me, for some reason. The other pair is usually on the floor, or as close to the floor as possible, either pointing at the drum kit or pointing directly at the floor. Any clean condenser mics are great for this. If I do parallel compression, I usually don't include these channels. That way they exist naturally around the rest of the more compressed squashed things.
I always figured that you put an expander on your room mics and keyed it off the snare.
No. Everything is just kind of up, and then I choose which to use. It's simple. I do de-ess room mics a lot of the time.
That Made Out Of Babies record [The Ruiner] is crazy sounding.
They're not an easy band to capture. But what I loved about that band was that they're like a circus freak show. They're the little car with 18 people jumping out of it, including tightrope walkers and a clown with big legs. There's not a lot of music that's loud and heavy, as well as sounding multidimensional, like they are. They're funny as soon as you're really scared. As soon as you start laughing, they scare you again. That's one of the few bands that I approached, actually. We ended up doing a song for a compilation and then we worked on that record.
One thing that strikes me about that record is that it's so dark. I cite it to friends as an example of the backlash against the "nineties' cocaine- bright" thing. Did you think, at the time, that you were making an unusual-sounding record?
That's interesting. I haven't really thought of it as a particularly dark record. There wasn't a concerted effort to not make that record bright. The intention was to capture the freakishness of that band. When you're working with a band like that, you have to embrace what's happening and enjoy the fact that it's fucked up.
Let's move on to the greatest record you've done, which is inarguably Scissorfight's Mantrapping for Sport and Profit.
You did New Hampshire, which, to me, is their first record that sounds "pro" — like it was done in a good room and all that. It's solid. But Mantrapping goes from good to great.
I agree with you. New Hampshire was my first chance to work with them, and I really dug that band. Again — they're multidimensional. They're as scary as they are funny. They don't take themselves too seriously, but you don't fuck with them. I love that band. So New Hampshire was my first chance. When it came time to do the next record, I remember us talking. I explained to them exactly what you said. We talked about what to do next and there was a side of them that wanted to go into a buddy's studio for cheap. I kept saying, "We can do that, but we fucking raised the bar. The bar is here. Let's fucking just do this." We had previously talked about going to Fort Apache Studio and, all of a sudden, we're talking about a buddy's studio instead. I said, "I'll do it, but it's wrong for you guys. You guys are mammoth — it'll sound like there's a governor on your record. It'll sound lesser than New Hampshire." By the time discussions ended we decided to go to Fort Apache. It was all tape. They had a big old [Neve] 8068 [console] there. That was my second time working on a Neve — there are moments where I was holding on for dear life. That record, as much asIloveit,IhearitandIhearalotoffightsinthe mixing. More often as not, the drums come across as cymbals stabbing you like ice picks. But the end result is that it sounds like everything is pushed.
The guitars really own that record. The drums are good, but it's not one of those records where you pull down the guitars a bit to let some drum detail through. It's like, "Fuck it. Guitar!"
Guitars were tuned pretty far down low. That was one of the records I was talking about listening to and thinking, "These are decisions that I would not have made had I had every option available to me."
Do you still consciously work on improving yourself as an engineer or producer? Or does that happen naturally when you're this busy?
Whenever I'm done with a record, my process is to let myself enjoy it for two or three days, let my ego grow a little bit, feel good — and then immediately tear it to shreds. I try to figure out all the ways I failed or lost a battle. That's what I was saying about approaching it from an artistic perspective. I look at artists, musicians and everyone — as soon as they believe their own myth, their output is shit. As soon as you start thinking that you're the shit, that you can do anything and it's golden, your days are numbered. The way to stop that is to coach yourself a little bit. Knock yourself down a peg or two; stay humble. That way you will continue to grow. I think that's incredibly important.
Title graphics by Alicia Palenyy.
Read about Andrew and the making of Unsane's Visqueen at tapeop.com.
andrewschneideraudio.com translatoraudiobrooklyn.com www.coextinction.com
Scott Evans plays in Kowloon Walled City and records loud bands in San Francisco. www.antisleep.com