Erik Wofford owns and operates Cacophony Recorders in Austin, Texas, and has worked with artists such as the Black Angels, Explosions in the Sky, My Morning Jacket, Bill Callahan, The Octopus Project, and Grupo Fantasma. Eschewing formal music training, he's developed an intuitive approach that draws from his early years recording bands live to radio, as well as his own restless drive to experiment. His recordings tend to share an immediacy and warmth that comes as much from the engaged performances he coaxes out of artists as the tape and outboard gear he tends to use to record them. Still, he remains first and foremost a guide - as committed to the bands' vision for their songs as the bands themselves.
How did you first get interested in recording?
When I was about eight years old I heard a Beach Boys song at the end of some movie, and I went to go grab a cassette recorder, the sort of thing you'd use to take notes. I put it up against the TV and thought, "I want to save this for later." It was either my first recording, or my first copyright infringement. Shortly after that I asked for this keyboard for Christmas. You could sample into it and then play that on the keyboard. It had manipulators and effects, and you could pitch things up and down. I would spend hours working with that thing. I don't even know how to play the keyboard; but I own 20 now, and that's still one of them. I love pulling it out and using it on a record, knowing that this little toy keyboard was the beginning of my career.
Eight years old? You got an early start. How did you not wind up a keyboard virtuoso?
Well, the keyboard went in a closet for a lot of my teenage years. I discovered guitar and started playing in high school bands.
Rhythm or lead?
I was always kind of a sound guy in my bands. I would create these textures, never playing anything too flashy. I was also the guy who would record everything. It started out with a Walkman that had a microphone on it. But then I got a 4-track and started to experiment with overdubbing and manipulating tape speeds. I began creating soundscapes without much of a thought at all about what I was doing, just seeing where it took me.
And where did it take you?
The very last year I was in high school, it became the arts magnet school. They started offering more artsy courses and one of them was a sound recording technology class. It was mostly based around music theory. I didn't like doing the composition work though; it didn't speak to the way I saw things at that time. Once I got an assignment done, a friend of mine and I would go in one of the back rooms where there was this old Ensoniq synthesizer. We would crank all the parameters out and make these very scary sounds. This was right as I was discovering Brian Eno and ambient music. I could tell that my teacher understood the value of us going back there and experimenting with the equipment that was essentially ambient, amorphous noise. He accepted that there was this atonal universe that he didn't get. He didn't go back there and tell us to stop screwing around, and I really respect him for that.
Did you continue to study sound recording in college?
From being able to go in that back room and mess around, I saw the value in finding my own way toward something that I knew a classroom environment wouldn't allow. I thought I could learn by experimenting on my own. I found my own path and gave it a shot.
So what did you do instead?
I hung out a lot with the guys from [the band] Sixteen Deluxe. I grew up listening to them. They were always kind enough to let me and my friends be a part of their group, even though we were a whole lot younger. I hung out at their studio they had built at the time called The Bubble. I learned a lot about making records, as well as what it was like to be in that environment. It was a whole lot of fun, but I did want to go to college so I could have a backup plan. That [plan] was geology. There are a lot of elements of geology that are similar to making a record, other than the cheap pun that it's all about rock. Still, I probably spent more time at [the student-run radio station at University of Texas at Austin] KVRX doing their Local Live program being a DJ than studying geology.
Can you explain what the Local Live program is all about?
Bands would play live on air, and I would mix it on a console down to 2-track DAT machine. They had to have their performance together, and I had to have everything together on my end. We had one shot at it. I think that pressure on everybody made for something pretty cool.
Austin is such a vibrant music city. Do any moments stand out from those performances?
One year the Fourth of July fell on a Sunday, the day we recorded Local Live. I couldn't find anyone to cover for me and the director couldn't find anyone [to perform] either. Some friends of the booker for Local Live had started a new band called Breaker Morant. They hadn't even played a show, but they agreed to do it. This was so early in their career that they hadn't established their sound that they've become known for, but I do remember hearing quite a bit of promise in what they were doing. Afterward, we were sitting there on the dock outside the studio watching the fireworks, and they said, "We should really change our name. Why don't we call ourselves Explosions in the Sky?"
And they ended up being one of the first bands you ended up recording.
I suppose geology never really stood a chance against Local Live.
Well, the turning point for me at Local Live was when a dub band from Denton called Sub Oslo came in. They had their own guy they brought in to do all the dubs in the control room, and we immediately bonded over Brian Eno. He asked if I wanted to run some delay pedals with him, and I hopped at the chance. Everything I had done, to that point, had been pretty hands off. The band would go in the live room and play, and I would be in the control room mixing it. It was awesome, but it was just a documentation of a performance. This was the first time that I was asked to join the band, to a certain extent. I had a lot more control over the sound and what was going on. There were no rules at all. This was an amazing band that was listening to what we doing in the control room and playing off these delays. I hadn't ever had that much fun working with music. After that was done, I knew what I wanted to do.
How did you go about making that happen?
I spent a lot of time at The Bubble when they were working on rock records. I never worked there myself, but I was credited on a few records as "Sonic Guidance." I'm still not sure what they meant by that, exactly. But I think, to a certain extent, all they really wanted was an outside perspective of a kid that was in here listening to their music, so they asked what I thought. But that experience was my first time being in a studio and being able to have some kind of involvement with a record.
So you went from understudying at The Bubble to doing your own thing. Did you work at other people's studios for a while?
To some extent I did. When I graduated college, a friend of mine, Darwin Smith, had the space that I'm currently in [Cacophony Recorders], and he needed an engineer for a couple of records he was producing and playing on. We really clicked when we worked together. I learned a lot about how to make records from him, and it gave me the confidence that I could run things on my own. Eventually, he gave me the keys to the car, and I ran with it.
Now that you have your own space, how do you see your role as producer?
I feel like there are two different types of producers — there's the arrangement producer and the sonic producer. One reason I think people like working with me is that I'm not a musician, or an arranger-type producer. When you work on music and you are first and foremost a musician, a lot of times you are thinking about a record in terms of how it is played and how well the parts go together. I'm definitely a sonic producer. I don't overanalyze performances. I try to hear a song as a listener would. I think the bigger picture of whether it was an inspiring take is much more important than if it was a competent take. I see myself as a facilitator — someone who is getting everybody in the right headspace. That's what allows people to shut off the part of their brain that analyzes things. Once you stop thinking, you can create really amazing stuff.
How do you get bands to stop thinking?
I have bands play live together, regardless of whether we are going to keep all of those tracks. What a lot of bands reacted to at Local Live was the fact that that they were all playing together in the same room, live on the air, and there was that immediacy. I think it's important for bands to go in thinking as a whole, rather than creating this thing like a bunch of piecemeal parts that add up to their record. It's a lot easier to harness that energy that way.
Most of the time, even if we haven't discussed it, I set up to record to 2-inch analog tape. Recording to a computer is a security blanket, for a lot of bands. They know they can do a thousand takes of something and piece it all together. If they mess up, they move it around, or put it on the grid and fix everything. Working on a tape, console, and outboard gear is more like a musical performance. You're not focused on watching a cursor move across a computer screen when you're listening back to a take coming off of tape. People let their minds drift and just listen. I think an important element of making music is to not be too distracted. Once we are working on Pro Tools, if the band is fixating on the computer too much, watching their music go by, I'll go up and turn the monitor off. I have a second monitor off to the side with a keyboard I use to control the system.
Do you see mistakes that come with this approach more as opportunities then?
There is so much human element that needs to be preserved in music, and mistakes are definitely one of those things. A perfect performance is boring. Sometimes a mistake will lead to an idea you never even would have considered before. I try to set up opportunities for people to create as many of those as possible. I feel like productions can get bogged down pretty easily with all the endless tweaking that you can do inside a computer these days. Recording music is not just sitting down and creating a perfect template of a song. I like to look at it as a new opportunity to document a specific point in time that is totally different than anything else. Almost all the records that I do have ended up in Pro Tools. There's just a certain element of tweaking that I can't talk bands out of; but I do try to retain the organic elements of what we started on tape by finishing mixing on a console with outboard gear, as well as with real reverbs and delays as opposed to plug-ins. I prefer the hands-on tactile form of mixing with EQs, compressors, reverb, and delay that I can set up myself.
What kind of tape machine do you use?
An Otari MTR-90 MKII, which is the most reliable machine around. It's not anything special sound- wise, but it still sounds like tape. Everybody I know that has an awesome sounding vintage tape machine spends lots of time and money fixing it. There is nothing worse than ruining a perfectly good take because of tape machine error.
Has that ever happened to you?
I had this Ampex 1-inch, 8-track tape machine from the '70s that was six-feet tall and 300 pounds, but it sounded great. One of my first big moments in the studio, I had Jim James [of My Morning Jacket] come in to do a couple of Townes Van Zandt songs. I'd worked with him several times at KVRX before then, and we were good friends. It was real low-key, but I was still nervous since this was my studio. We recorded to tape and it was this breathtaking performance of "Be Here to Love Me." I hit rewind on the tape machine and inadvertently hit play and record at the same time. We were
listening and I thought, "Why is nothing coming out of the speakers?" I saved my ass though because I knew that tape machine was not very reliable and I was recording to tape and Pro Tools, at the same time. I guess that was my live radio engineer-self coming back — I was always going to have a backup.
Good for you.
Although it wasn't because the machine actually failed, but because I wasn't thinking. Still, there is that element of danger that I actually love about tape.
Is danger part of the energy you are trying to create in the room?
Yeah, definitely. I think musicians do need to relax in a studio environment, but when you introduce that element it almost becomes more like a live performance. I hate it when people say a band's records are good, but not as good as their live shows. Well then somebody messed up! There's no reason it shouldn't have that same kind of energy and engagement.
Do you have an example of when the live sound worked particularly well for a recording?
The very first song that I did with the Black Angels was very much like that. I saw them at a club before they had any recordings out. I went up to them after the show and told them they needed to sound exactly like they did on that stage, only coming out of little paper cones.
Paper cones? Wait. What?
I was talking about the speakers I use in the studio. They have paper cones on the woofers. The band didn't really understand at first either. They thought I was just being really weird.
What happened next?
We set up a time to record just one song, as a trial. We only had a couple of hours to work on the song, so I set up everything for them to record live together. Working very quickly made for an instant vibe. I usually try do that with bands. When you are sitting around waiting for something to happen that inspiration can leave and not come back. But if you are focusing and not overthinking things, you can really get at the heart of what a band is and what they're doing, as opposed to what they can do when they go back and edit themselves.
What song was it?
We ended up rerecording it for their second album, a song called "Doves." I remember trying to chase that first version of it and never being as satisfied as I was with that original one. It's funny because I could never tell if it was the sound or the energy I was after. There was something about it. However, in the process of pursuing that one thing that we were doing, I discovered a sound that totally worked for them.
Have you tried to replicate that sound for them since?
I try not to have too much of a preconceived notion of a sound in my head. I really prefer to just get in there and run with what's there, as well as to react to the situations that are given to me. I'll try to change things up regularly. Better to create something new you haven't done before.
You mentioned Eno earlier, and to me a lot of what you've been talking about, and that in particular, sounds like his notion of composers as gardeners. You don't really have a picture of what the song is going to sound like. But by introducing that possibility for variability and chaos, you are setting up the musicians you record to create something interesting.
Right. I think people perform differently when they hear an exciting new sound coming back at them they've never heard before. A lot of what I do is pushing equipment to the edges of its boundaries of working properly. There is so much non-linearity with distortion, compression, and EQ that one little tiny thing will send it in a completely different direction. I like that character of extreme manipulation of sounds, but it can be unwieldy at times. I've learned to embrace that, as a part of what I do. It's always going to be a little different, a little bit left of center. I think formulaic records and the nice clean, pristine sounds are kind of boring. It's not something I'm interested in. I want to get in there and mangle things a little bit. But sometimes there's that juxtaposition of the two — a really pretty sound next to a very weird sound that works. A friend of mine described it as a plane flying low to the ground — one little tip of the wing and it's all over. But that's where the excitement is.
How did that work with the Bill Callahan record [Dream River] you did recently? It sounds so clean and clear. You can really hear the individual elements, like the flute or his vocal. Even the silence feels discrete and pronounced.
It's definitely a much different case than I was talking about earlier, where I like to mess things up. Bill is a painter of sound and arrangements. The space that's left between the notes is just as important as the notes themselves. That record — and it's the way I like to make records, in general — is all about depth of field. I look at in a similar way to a cinematographer who sets up a scene of a movie, with something in the foreground and the background. In this case, I really wanted his vocal front and center, with everything else supporting and building that picture. I had everyone play together in separate rooms within sight lines of each other. Each instrument had its own mic that was up close, and then another that was a little bit further way, so I could capture the natural reverb of each room. Bill's guitar ended up with an atmosphere that was different from just throwing a mic right up on a speaker. That's very different than how I achieved that sense of depth with someone like the Black Angels where everything needs to be a little hazy and out of focus, so that you don't have any one particular element call too much attention to itself.
With everyone playing live, did the Callahan session develop its own distinct feel like the first one with the Black Angels?
Yeah. All those players on the album are there, spiritually and musically. When you put that record on, you can hear that element of humans playing together and everything seeps into the cracks. I like being able to get a bunch of people in the same room and let them forget about what is going on in their lives, or what their perceived role in the band is, and work together to make a vision happen.
By working quickly?
Yes, but I also try to do that by making the studio like a house you are hanging out in. I don't like studios that are really clean and slick, with things that are out of the way. I call them dentist offices. I like to think of my studio as more of a treehouse. You are at the top of the tree line along the Colorado River with these huge windows you can look out of. There's a deck outside that sits 40 or 50 feet above the river. There's no sign of civilization there, even though you're five minutes from downtown. It's very calm and peaceful setting. You can get outside and get away from what you're doing for five or ten minutes. It's refreshing.
The mixing board is in the same room where a lot of the music is recorded. How does that big open space contribute to your goal of getting people to relax and listen to each other?
I definitely think it helps to ease people's tensions. I'm not this voice coming through the headphones. I'm in the room with them. If we are going to have a conversation, we just take the headphones off. I think bands like that I am right there with them. It puts everybody on the same team. There are definitely drawbacks, engineering-wise, by not having the isolated environment to listen to my speakers; but I think the trade-off is preferable.
What is your approach, when it comes time to mix?
Mixing, a lot of the times for me, comes down to fine- tuning the details of the song and getting the motion right between all the different sections of the song. When I'm tracking a record, I want it to sound like the record on the very first day.
"We'll fix it later!"
I hate that excuse. It becomes this game where you are trying to put together a puzzle in all these different sections. If it isn't sounding the way you want in the beginning, you are really just fumbling around every time you add something to it. You're wasting time. And you are creating more stress down the line when you're trying to tie it all together to make it sound like a record. When I'm mixing someone else's songs, however, it usually is a bunch of different elements. I need to either figure out how it all goes together, or completely repaint the picture. That's all about finding the artist's intent. In the end, I'm working for the band. They need to be happy, more than me, and more than their listeners. They're the ones that have to live with their record. I try to be choosy on the projects I take, so that taste-wise we are in the same ballpark. I don't want to have to say, "I don't want to put my name on this record."
One name that lots of people know you from is Grupo Fantasma. How did you come to work with them? Did you choose them, or did they choose you?
A friend of mine was friends with Adrian [Quesada, formerly of Grupo Fantasma] and he brought him by the studio. We hung out and got along. Then, out of the blue, Adrian asked me if I wanted to master their record. I knew their previous record had been nominated for a Grammy, so already that was a big deal to me. The record [El Existential] was entirely self-recorded, and it was done in a house under non-ideal circumstances. It had a lot of rough edges that needed to be smoothed out. They tried their best to make it old school, dirty, and warm sounding, but they needed it to go the extra mile in mastering. It was a more involved mastering process, but they ended up winning a Grammy for that record. I feel so fortunate that they trusted me to do what I do, and to bring me into that family. They are a bunch of hardworking, loving guys, and it feels good to be a part of that.
What is your approach to mastering?
Mastering is sort of like finding the right prescription of glasses. When somebody is mixing a record, listening to a certain set of monitors, in a certain room, brings a certain skew that sometimes has to be accounted for. Good engineers know their system and account for that, so their mixes translate. Those records don't need a whole lot of work. But sometimes, especially when I am making records on tape, mastering needs to be a little more because you have so many different elements to deal with. It's a fine balance knowing how far to take something. When I'm mastering I use all analog EQs and compressors. In general, I pick a lot of tubes and transformers; gear with color in it. But it all comes down to what it's going to take to present the record to the real world in a way that the artist intends. There is a balance you have to strike between that organic quality and achieving a modern sound that doesn't stand out. There's a general trend in mastering to brighten things up, as well as to compress them and make things really loud for the noisy, distracting world that we're in. I don't particularly like making records like that. I like to work on records that you want to sit down and listen to. [I want you to] get engaged with the music, as opposed to competing for attention among the records that are out there.
How do you try to draw people into that kind of experience?
I like to find elements to throw into a song. I call them "sonic nuggets," because you have to dig into the record to notice them, but once you find them it makes for a more interesting listen. It's not something I'm going to do every single time with every band. I usually get a feel for what bands like, and then come up with something that speaks to their songs. Most of the time, when I do that, it is a textural sort of thing. It's not necessarily a big melody part.
How will you go about putting one of these "sonic nuggets" together?
I play this thing called an Omnichord, which, for all intents and purposes, is a child's toy. You can't play a bad note with it, as long as it's the right chord. You can run it through a bunch of effects and create an atmosphere around the song that is not easily identifiable. But if you were to take it away, it would be immediately obvious that it was gone. Another instrument that I use are tape echoes. I'll set it up to send a word, or guitar part, to it and then turn up the regeneration on the delay so it starts feeding back on itself. It becomes a self-oscillating noise that goes along with the tempo and key of the song. In the right amount, it can turn something that isn't perceived as an instrument to an element of the song that grabs somebody's attention in a subtle way.
The notion that music is still being made that rewards repeated listens seems depressingly outdated. With the music industry changing so rapidly, where do you see your career heading next?
I have always thought you need to make a record as quickly and cheaply as possible. Luckily a lot of artists that I have worked with can handle that, and create really cool stuff when under that pressure. For some kinds of recordings people want to take the time to make these extravagant records and get things exactly how they want them. Not many people have the money to do that anymore. However, the technology is there for people to do it at home. Sometimes the tracks are in rough shape, but the vision is definitely there because they can hone in on what they want. It's a lot of trial and error. If they need to do a song five different ways, they can. The room that I'm recording in has 25-foot ceilings that sound amazing for drums. Sometimes we'll just record drums, bands will do overdubs at home, and then we'll mix at the studio. That's a lot like the way I work with The Octopus Project. They'll record at their home studio and then hit a wall, in terms of being able to fit everything into two little speakers. They bring me in, and I kind of help finesse things into working. I can see studios moving towards doing the big legwork of making everything work together, such as mixing and mastering.
What gets lost then is having someone who facilitates the performance. When someone is doing it at home they are not going to have the same sense of urgency.
Yeah. They definitely don't get that part of what I do, but I don't particularly think there is one set way to make a great record. I like the surprise and uniqueness of different methodologies of working. Sometimes it's a band that recorded everything in a house. Sometimes somebody shows up in the studio and only has a skeleton of a song. I can come up with an arrangement, as well as all the different parts, in that one day. Sometimes it's a live recording. They're all different; they're all valid. I prefer variety versus being able to say you are going to do something one way that worked. Even back in the days of Local Live, I would make it a point to try something different every week. A lot of times it didn't work, but I would learn something from that.
There's a lot of moaning about the way the music industry is changing, but it sounds like you would be more uncomfortable if it weren't changing. At least you continue to learn and grow, amidst all the change.
Yeah. I never thought of it like that. There is definitely a power that has been given to individual performers now that wasn't around ten years ago. People are creating pretty amazing micro-orchestrations at home. There's always going to be room for somebody like me to help them tie together all the loose ends, as well as break up the roadblocks that they are coming up against and make it all fit together.
It seems like what's changing is the nature of the sonic guidance you provide.
I still feel like I give sonic guidance when bands come up against something that they can't quite get on their own. But I love what I can learn from people who do things their own way. It's something you wouldn't have thought of before. It makes their end result that much more unique, which is really what I'm always striving for. I don't want a band to have my sound. I want their record to be a unique statement to them.