For the past 11 years, Greg Wilkinson has recorded the Bay Area's crustiest punk/hardcore/grindcore/death metal/doom/black metal at Earhammer, his warehouse studio in West Oakland. He's also played in a ton of bands, including Brainoil and Deathgrave. Plus he's the sweetest guy imaginable. Every time I talk to Greg, I feel great afterwards. The other day I bumped into Al from Negative Standards, who's working on a new record at Earhammer. "Honestly," Al said, "It's half about making a record, and half about hanging out with Greg!"
What's the Earhammer background?
In '98, I was in a two-piece band. We both decided to go to recording school so we could record ourselves — to stay DIY, but to also get better documentation of what we were doing. That's when I started working in the school, CRI [California Recording Institute] in San Francisco, which is now defunct. I was able to use the facilities there, and kept doing that until it went out of business. Fast-forward a few years; I was doing some freelance [engineering] at [the underground venue] Burnt Ramen's studios, and [doing] whatever sessions I could get using my own devices. Eventually I was like, "Man, this isn't working. I want my own place, but I can't afford it." Then [fellow engineer] Sal [Raya] hit me up and said, "Do you want to do a studio?" This was around January 2004.
Did Sal live with you here?
He did. It was himself, his wife, and dog, at first. It was kind of a chaotic zoo! This place was really cobbled together. We didn't have the front room done.
But you were doing sessions within three months of moving in?
Yeah. The very first session we had here was a band called High Tone Son of a Bitch. Two guys from the band came down and did a lot of carpentry with us as a trade. Being in the music scene for a long time myself helped, and it got a lot busier than I expected. By 2008 I quit my day job. I had my work down to one day a week, and they were still willing to let me do it. But eventually I thought, "I feel like a jerk. I gotta quit."
And it's just you here now, right?
Yeah, Sal moved out in early 2013. As work picked up here for me, Sal started working for Hartman Pedals and became head of sound at the Oakland Metro [non-profit performing arts venue]. Both gigs were more solid for him. Cutting his overhead and freeing up space for the studio to expand was a good option for both of us.
What was your recording background, beyond CRI and Burnt Ramen?
I'd been recording since about '92 — lots of 8-track, recording my own bands, and my friends' demos.
So you weren't new to recording at all.
No, no. But Sal and I were super new to owning a studio! [laughs] I had a 1/2-inch Otari 8-track, and Sal had a couple of MOTU interfaces. We were able to cobble together 16 tracks. We'd try tracking drums on the 8-track and then layering everything. Sometimes we tracked all digital, depending on how fast people wanted to go — but, at best, we could get 16 tracks running. The console was a Ramsa 12-channel mixer. [laughs] It was really some clip-on mics, [Shure] SM57s, and an [AKG] D 112, and hope for the best. That was the first couple years. Every couple months we'd be, "Okay, we need another mic. We need some mic stands."
But you were busy.
I wouldn't say we were busy the first couple years. I was getting a couple of jobs a month. It was asininely cheap. [laughs] It was, "I don't have a real studio." It was a hundred bucks a day. Then it went to $150 a day, and, by 2008, I'd gone to hourly. I changed the rates to where I could pay my bills, get by, and still be affordable for clients.
Had you worked with, or for, other engineers much?
I've done some recording with other engineers: Dan Rathbun [Tape Op #10], Noah Landis [Neurosis], Kurt Schlegel [Lucky Cat Recording], and Mike Avilez from Burnt Ramen. I've done my rounds of checking out local engineers whom I respect and who have small operations. I always thought it would be cool to have a small operation. This isn't Fantasy Studios. But I missed the boat on interning. From the time I moved out when I was 18, it's been a scramble to get by and make bills, and unfortunately I wasn't able to go intern anywhere. I've pretty much learned through failing. [laughs] Throw mics up, and if it doesn't work, you learn your lesson.
Since you opened up have you done sessions in other rooms, or has it mostly been here?
I've done some work at other studios, but mostly I work here.
Yeah! He's a Swiss Army knife!
You make hundreds of records in one place.
I love it when I go to another studio and see all the toys they have — it's super fun. But I remember when I was at London Bridge Studio [in Seattle]; we had a scary situation. We were going through mics and I opened up the Coles  case and [the mic] looked super banged up. Fortunately there were two interns working, and I had an intern next to me. He said, "Oh man, I need to report that. I want them to know that you didn't do that." That's where things get nerve-wracking. I don't want to be responsible for that. If I blow my own gear up — and I have — it sucks, but I did it and it's mine. Plus, it's comfortable here. I feel like, "Hey, welcome to my house. This is your house right now."
Do you think of your studio as being part of a community?
Definitely. The studio was built in direct response to the community that was already here in Oakland. It's become a synergistic relationship between the music community and Earhammer. When the studio started out, it was in hopes of making an affordable studio for people like myself who didn't have that much money to record but wanted decent recordings — good enough to put on vinyl. At the time there weren't that many affordable studios. It was either you record a demo in your rehearsal space, or you go to a fancy spot. There wasn't much of a middle ground.
You're busier than ever. It seems the community aspect is a big part of that.
Definitely. If I was to say, "Screw it," and not play music anymore, and not go to shows, I would become detached from the community I'm trying to document and be a part of. I'm only a small piece of that puzzle; but when the studio started, I was really active in bands and was friends with a lot of the people that I had the privilege of recording. Had I been some kid who decided he wanted to record and went to school for it, I wouldn't have gotten any work.
It's so easy for engineers to think that if they got just a few more nice microphones, better converters, or another compressor, they would attract more clients. It has nothing to do with that.
Yeah. I'm friends with these people, too. Most of the sessions I have are [composed of] friends.
Is it hard for you to charge friends?
Of course. [laughs] It's always hard, but I had a friend a long time ago say, "If somebody is really your friend, they're going to understand your value and pay for your time. They're not really friends if they expect everything for free." I don't necessarily live by that credo. For a long time it was, "Uh, do you mind paying me? I know we agreed on this before you came in, but..." It's gotten to the point over the last few years — I mean, that's my rent check. It gets easier when billing somebody is survival. Most of my friends understand that.
You have an MCI JH-16 2-inch tape deck.
It's a complete headache. I love it, but I had to put it to sleep for a while. It's a beautiful sounding machine, but it got to a point where I was losing too much money to record bands on it. It would break, every session. Then you're paying someone $50 an hour, plus parts, to come in and fix it. Most bands, when I talk to them about it, they don't care. I actually have a lot of bands that are excited about digital. They're not paying $300 for a reel of tape. They can punch in and out, and they can do 47 takes of solos.
Are you still mixing with your console, or are you mixing totally in the box?
I go through a Dangerous 2-Bus [summing mixer] to get some headroom, but I'm pretty much in the box. I don't know if my [Soundcraft] Ghost [console] is necessarily doing enough good [on a mix] to make me want to recall settings and all. I do a lot of re-amping and get coloration that way. When I get files [from other studios], a lot of times I find that the drum mics are too tight-sounding for me, so I create my own custom hall sounds by re-amping them to buy myself the distance that I need.
Do you run the signal through a bass cabinet for drum re-amping?
Yeah, I run drums through my old SVT. I keep it pretty clean, set it up in the live room, open the door, and set up a couple of hall mics.
Do you find that's worth the effort, compared to a convolution reverb?
I don't have a convolution reverb. [laughs] After ten years, there's a certain thumbprint to this studio and I want to keep some of that in the recordings.
So those hall sounds are important for drums that you record here too?
That's a huge part of it. Adding that three-dimensional ambience is when I really started to understand drum recording. After tight-mic'ing things forever, I felt, "This snare sounds great in the room." Then you throw a mic on it and it sounds like a snare, but it doesn't have any life to it. I add the overheads and it sounds a little better; but it's still too direct sounding and it doesn't sound real. When I started incorporating the hall mic, I was like, "This is really cool." I started distorting [the hall mic] and I thought, "That sounds even cooler." I started needing less reverbs and I started putting up a second mic in the bedroom. It's pretty far, maybe 50 feet? There are times where I'll snap it back in time a bit, but usually I leave it. It does some cool stuff to kick drums, especially in slower music, but even for faster hardcore. Some UK '82 punk style sounds.
You just have to get the drummer to never hit cymbals.
Yes! "Don't hit the cymbals!" That's the glory of having your tracks in a digital window — you'd laugh at how compartmentalized my mixes get. That's a huge part of my mixing — compartmentalizing all the sections, and trying to do it as seamlessly as possible. I'll have the slow stuff, then the mid tempo stuff, and the blast beats all treated differently. Then I'll go through after that and take accents and drum fills and process them differently. It fills in the slow parts, as well as filling in the fast parts with different levels of distortions and reverbs.
How about guitar re-amping? Do you do that a lot?
I do. Especially for live tracking, because [during tracking] I'm throwing guitar cabinets in dead closets. I want people to hear their rig, what they sound like live with their reverbs and distortion. After tracking that way, then it's, "How about we get a sound using a more appropriate amp?" I'll throw it through re-amping, let them listen, and, almost always, they go, "Yeah! That sounds way cool."
I don't do a lot of re-amping — I think partially because of the time it takes to setup. Do you find that to be a problem, or is it worth it?
It's super worth it. At this point I'm very familiar with what to look for after hearing the band live, so it's usually a pretty quick grab — "You should use a [Marshall] JCM800, or my Red Bear amp." Let's say I re-amp everyone's live takes. Most bands are recording about 30 minutes of music. The re-amp only takes an extra hour and a half. There's a time-savings on the front end, too. I've learned that I want to be pushing record within two or three hours of everyone getting here. Unless a band wants to spend ten days recording — and nobody has the money for that; I get maybe one or two of those a year — I want to be recording in two hours. That means getting the drums tuned and set up, levels, headphone mixes. Once you spend five or six hours setting up a session, everybody's tired; they start messing up more and that kind of thing. I'd rather get everyone to perform quickly, and get the performances right.
So this way your live guitar sounds are sort of scratch, but the performances are keepers.
Exactly. On almost every session, initial tracking is done on day one — drums, bass, guitars, fixes, punches. Then, on day two, everyone's done; they're relaxed and everyone thinks, "Okay, fresh ears. Let's re-amp for an hour over a cup of coffee." Then we'll get back to performing, and do overdubs and solos.
That's a cool way to use re-amps. Now you made me want to try it.
It's worth trying.
Sonically your records definitely have a consistent thing. Do you have recording heroes?
It mutates a lot. Dan Rathbun was one really inspiring person. Billy Anderson is just great, especially on slow stuff. Steve Albini [Tape Op #87, #10] and Kurt Ballou [#76] are two other engineers I really look up to.
Your recordings don't sound anything similar to those guys.
Nope. And they won't. [laughs] If I wanted to mimic those guys, I would just go to them. I love really thick, heavy production. Details can get lost if the band wants it that way. I'm not gonna argue with the band to say, "No, we have to hear every detail." That's a thing that I feel bands get frustrated with, especially in the punk and hardcore scene. You have four distortion pedals, in a row, into some Peavey. Then you get an engineer who says, "This sounds like crap. We can't use that." But the raw punks, they want that. I figured out a cool way to make that work, where the production's not necessarily pitch black, but there are silhouettes. That's what they want. I came from a grind background. I listened to a lot of that stuff. I was already privy to people who wanted their recordings to be noisy or aggressive — to present the aesthetic for what it's supposed to be.
It's hard to track down your discography. A lot of the bands you record are barely on the Internet.
I need to get on discogs.com and fix it sometime. Their current information is ridiculous. I've had people say, "I've been trying to figure out what you've done and I can't find anything about you!" I'm a horrible self-promoter. "Do you have a Facebook?" "No." "Do you have a website?" "No." [laughs] I would like to have business cards and a website. It's just that in 2008 the gas pedal went all the way to the floor, and it's stayed there. A 100-hour work week isn't uncommon for me.
There's barely a hundred hours in a week.
Yeah. It usually involves one all-nighter. [laughs] The last few years I've been able to tamp it down, for the most part. March of 2014 was the last time I thought, "I cannot do the 100-hour weeks anymore. My body just won't take it." But 60-hour weeks are very common. I'm usually working seven days a week.
Maybe you don't need to do any promotion then.
Right, but I do get bands that write me and say, "Can you give us examples of what you've done?" That turns into two hours of me finding links to send, and, at that point, I'm like, "Ugh, I should just fix discogs.com or something." Then there's, "What gear do you have?" The people who want to know what bells and whistles they're getting. I've had people get to the point of asking, "Why should our band record with you?" I say, "I don't know! I'm a horrible self-promoter!"
Overall, are you happy? Even with the crazy hours?
Yeah. I'm happy because I like being around music. Being able to do this full time, as opposed to working at Whole Foods 50 hours a week, — I'm really lucky and fortunate. I think it's a great thing. If I start getting unhappy or burnt out, I can look a couple months out and start booking accordingly. There are still periods where things dry up and I'm only working 12 or 15 days a month. I'm starting to take advantage of that free time — rather that sitting around stressing about something I can't fix. I'll go out and enjoy nature, play music, and hang out with friends. I've gone camping four times this year. Sitting around getting depressed when it's too busy, or getting depressed when it's too dead, is a waste of time. You can't control it.
That sounds pretty sane.
I try to keep it sane. But nobody's perfectly sane who does this work.