Irene Trudel might just be one of the most private people in public radio. A self-professed introvert, Irene has worked in public and commercial radio for over 30 years, and is now a head engineer for WNYC 93.9 FM. Since 1986 she’s also hosted her own weekly show on WFMU (Irene Trudel’s Show), and her album credits include live recordings of Jeff Buckley, Yo La Tengo, Giant Sand [Tape Op #12], Michael Hurley, Gary Lucas, Bang on a Can, and more. We got together at WNYC’s Control Room #5, where I had recorded with her twice before as a guest on John Schaefer’s Soundcheck show.
How did you get your start in radio?
I was the shyest person in the world, and I couldn’t talk to people. I would just crumble into a ball if you asked me to go up and talk to somebody. I had heard about the school radio station, Morristown High School, WJSV. It reached three towns away, 10 watts! I took an interest because my mother was in the Navy and worked as a Radioman in the war. She knew Morse code, and used to listen for enemy warships in World War II.
Did you listen to a lot of radio as a kid?
Mostly WNEW FM and Alison Steele, The Nightbird. She’s another inspiration of mine. I also listened to Jonathan Schwartz, who, weirdly, I now work with.
Did you record any live music in high school?
That’s where I got started. There was a local church that had a coffeehouse, and local folk musicians would come in and sing. Somebody thought it’d be a good idea to send me there with a reel-to-reel tape recorder to record some of those performances to play back on the air. I think I still have some of those tapes.
What kind of tape machine did you bring?
A Revox or TEAC 1/4-inch, 4-track machine. I’d plug into their system and get a feed. I only did it a few times, but I was hooked. I’d never been to any concerts before!
Who was running the radio program at the high school?
Bruce Lontka. He was a physics teacher and had a hobby in radio, so he got all of this castoff equipment from ABC TV. He built it on his own, got a mixing board, and reworked everything inside. It was originally tube gear; he made it all into integrated circuits and rewired everything. It was pretty primitive, but it worked well.
Did you make friends from the station?
Definitely. In those days you had to take a test to get your Third Class Radio Operators license.
What kind of questions were on it?
“How do you determine the power of the station?” There were a lot of math equations also. I’m terrible at that. The electronics end has me stumped. I’m good, in a mechanical sense.
What kind of music were you playing back then?
Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Yes, The Beatles, and The Incredible String Band. A lot of prog rock and a lot of folk music. It was pretty eclectic.
Did you get time alone in the studio to experiment on your own?
I was playing around with the tape deck a lot. I was trying to use it for echo. I had my own three-hour air slot, and I could pretty much play anything I wanted. We just had to follow FCC rules, so no cursing.
Did you learn basic signal flow from recording the live recordings or from the radio show?
I learned more about that in college. I went to County College of Morris, in New Jersey – a commuter college. They didn’t have a radio major, so I majored in journalism. I was working part-time and going to school part-time, but I felt like I was majoring in radio because I spent so much time at WCCM there. It wasn’t on the air; it was just a carrier current station – it runs over the wires of whatever circuitry you’ve got wired up to it, like a PA. We broadcast to the campus and a couple of cafeterias.
I saw that you once interviewed R.E.M. at Maxwell’s [Tavern] in Hoboken?
For WCCM, on a handheld cassette recorder. I didn’t know a thing about cutting tape in those days, so the editing wasn’t so great!
Did you record bands live at Maxwell’s?
I once got a board tape for a Kevin Ayers show. I brought my cassette recorder and arranged to record it with the guys there for WFMU. By that point I had joined WFMU. I had also worked at a couple commercial stations by then. WXMC was an AM station that it turns out was a bit of a tax write off. I worked for WDHA in Dover, NJ; a rock station. They had a lot of great bands; it was the height of new wave. That’s the first time I discovered Robyn Hitchcock [Tape Op #17]. That was cool. I was a traffic person; I’d write down all the times that commercials ran. I worked my way up to being the production manager for them. I’d write and produce commercials. I was there about eight years.
Did you ever intern at a recording studio?
Yes, a friend of a friend, Don Sternecker – who runs Mix-O-Lydian Recording Studio – took me on as his intern. He recorded all the Hoboken bands; The Bongos, The Feelies, and Speed the Plough. A lot of the bands ended up on Steve Fallon’s label [Coyote Records]. I learned a lot about recording from him, and then I learned just doing it. Phasing is something I can hear, and I know it, but I can’t say that I ever “learned it” in any way. I do credit Don for teaching me what sounds good in a mix. We sat and listened to many good and bad bands. I consider him a mentor, and he encouraged me to learn more.
Do people ever hire you to record their records?
No. Honestly, with this and my radio show, I don’t have the time.
Do you have interns here? Do you enjoy teaching people?
I love teaching people. Only one person who’s been here has gotten an actual job, though. There’re just not a lot of jobs. You also have to have a certain temperament for this. You can’t be fazed by things.
I get everything in here: good people, cranky people, and nervous people. You just have to be, “I’m gonna be fine. I’m gonna take care of this. Don’t worry about it.” I’ll run around like a maniac making it happen. People are usually happy with the result.
You make them sound good.
It’s from doing it every day – I feel lucky. This is one of the rare jobs where you can put that skill to use on such a regular basis; and because it’s a regular job, I can go home at the end of the day. Some days are very long, by design, but most times I can go home and have a normal life. Don, who ran Mix-O-Lydian, was there seven days a week, 18 hours a day. I don’t know how he didn’t collapse.
Were you recording your own sessions at Mix-O-Lydian?
No. Don ran all of the sessions himself. He let me do one session when he was deathly ill and in the other room. It was a gospel band and I wasn’t very good at recording, at that point. I had to punch in and out. I didn’t know what I was doing. Have you ever operated a 2-inch tape machine?
Yeah. I love it.
It’s like driving a car for the first time. I was terrified. I thought I would stretch the tape or something, but nothing bad happened.
Is Mix-O-Lydian still around?
In a smaller form. He’s downsized.
Recording budgets aren’t what they used to be, but musicians come to WNYC every day to record with you.
Yeah. I’m lucky. John Schaefer [Soundcheck host] has good ears for finding music.
How many bands do you generally record during a week?
It’s about three per week. It used to be every day, Tuesday through Saturday. Soundcheck started in the spring, after 9/11, when WNYC completely changed its format. After 9/11 they became more of a news station, and we were the main music program. I took over in 2003 for Soundcheck’s original engineer, George Wellington, when he moved to Japan.
Do you have regular assistants on most sessions?
If it’s a huge band, I’ll ask for help. Most times it’s just me.
What’s your set up time?
Around an hour and a half, but sometimes more. I’ve built more time into it. When we first started doing Soundcheck live, we’d tell a band, “You can show up at 1 p.m. for the 2 p.m. show.” But now I’ve got a two-hour window to get sounds. We have a very nice collection of Neumann and Schoeps mics.
Do you use Schoeps on the piano?
Mostly I like AKGs on it; it depends on the type of performer. For classical I’ll use the Schoeps, and for rock ‘n’ roll or jazz I’ll use the 414s.
Do you do a lot of tweaking while recording?
When we record I don’t process that at all. I’m not a big gear head. When I mix, I tend to not do a lot of EQ’ing. I like to place the mics in a good spot, where it’ll sound natural knowing the mics I like to use.
How many engineers work here?
There’s a core of about five or six of us, but I’m the one mostly assigned to this studio, Control Room #5
There are five studios at WNYC?
There are more than that. Studios 1 through 4 are regular radio studios, with digital consoles and a pretty minimal setup. Studios 5 and 6 are multitracking studios. 6 is downstairs in the live performance space; The Greene Space.
Are you printing mixes live to tape?
No tape! We stopped doing that when we moved to this building. Previously, when we had a radio board with Millennia mic preamps, we could do up to 16 channels. Beyond that you’d have to bring in an extra console. We have some nice Studer consoles that we use for remotes, but mostly we kept it to 16 channels.
I can do 32 channels, but some of them are spoken for. We had them modify the board for some line level channels. We have this custom-made module from Sierra Automated Systems; it’s like a giant router. I can bring up phone sources, other studios, and ISDNs [Integrated Services Digital Network]. When you’re doing a phone call, or ISDN, you send them everything but themselves so there’s no feedback loop, what’s called “Mix Minus.” So there’s a customized channel on the API console to send everything but itself. Years ago, when I first started with WNYC, I’d have to figure out a patch cord method. There’d be a couple of sends on the board, and beyond that I’d have to get creative. I’m glad I don’t have to think about that anymore.
When you do a session, are you recording it to multitrack?
To Pro Tools, and I try to mix it live. If there’s a disaster I can always go back and remix it, but most all of the mixes that go out are the ones I did live. We have no time; it’s a very fast operation so you have to be able to do a good mix quickly. We do a lot of remote recording as well. We bring separate consoles, as well as all the gear, mics, and cables. We do regular events at Carnegie Hall; I’ve mixed orchestras there. It’s a union hall, so they have to hang the mics. I’ll go onstage and point, and the stagehands will place the mics. We also record John Schaefer’s New Sounds Live and the Ecstatic Music Festival at the Merkin Concert Hall. We just did RadioLoveFest at BAM [Brooklyn Academy of Music]. I recorded Lisa Fischer there; she’s a well-known backup singer from that film, 20 Feet from Stardom.
Has anything you’ve recorded at WNYC been released?
We do a lot of work with Bang on a Can All-Stars. We did a live recording of them doing Terry Riley’s “In C” that got released. That was at the Winter Garden Atrium, downtown.
That must’ve been a challenge to record in. That’s a huge space.
Yeah, it’s all glass and tile. They’ve managed to get a better sound system in there, but it’s still difficult. There are always people milling around, but we tight mic’d everything. For that particular recording, I mixed it live with headphones for broadcast, and then later they released it as is.
How did you get involved with WFMU?
I started doing shows there in the fall of 1986. It’s listener-sponsored. When I first started there, WFMU belonged to a college. The college went bankrupt and our station manager, Ken [Freedman], helped us form the corporation to buy the license. I’m part of the Auricle Communications Board, which runs the station and holds the license. There’re 11 of us; some of us who are DJs, and a few who deal with the financials.
What’s your technical setup over at WFMU?
We’ve got a Midas Verona console, basic mics, a bunch of [Shure SM]57s and [Shure SM]58s, a few nicer condensers, and a lot of consumer model equipment. When I started at WFMU they were in the basement of a campus cafeteria, so we had a studio in a meat locker. The only ventilation was a fan leftover from the old refrigeration unit. But then we moved to a house on the edge of campus. The studio made a soundproof wall between the mixing room and the live room, but nowhere else. You could hear sound coming from anywhere else in the house. [laughs]
How do you discover new music for your WFMU show?
I find a lot of it on the internet, and I go out from time to time. I’ve become a real jazz fan these days.
How has technology changed in radio since you started?
Tremendously. In high school we had 1/4-inch reel-to-reel equipment, two turntables, cart machines – like 8-track [cartridges], but specifically made for radio [Fidelipac/NAB cartridge]. They’d have a tone that would trigger the tape to stop, or to cue a commercial to play. That was automation in those days. When I started at WFMU it was such a shoestring operation. To have a cassette player was a big deal. They had a couple of Scully [tape decks]; that was the fancy tape machine. Then they got cassettes, and we recorded on those for years.
Would you edit on cassette?
No, it was mostly live to tape. Eventually we got DAT machines; that was a big step up! Early on I was the engineer for a show [that featured live, in-studio sessions] called The Music Faucet at WFMU. I told the DJ [Nicholas Hill], “Wow, this looks interesting. I’d love to learn that,” and he said, “Great, come back next week.” The next week we unpacked a brand new, 8-channel mixer that he’d just bought. He said, “There’s the mixer,” and I had to figure it out myself. He didn’t know how to do it either. That’s where I first met Michael Hurley, Gary Lucas, and Jeff Buckley. We recorded Jeff Buckley’s first radio [appearance]. He was incredible. We recorded for Live at The Knitting Factory. Eventually we got a better mixer and a reverb unit; an Alesis MicroVerb.
Do you notice a difference in the recording formats? Do you miss any of the older ones?
I don’t. Whatever good format has come along, I’m happy to embrace it. Digital is a good format for me. We’re using Pro Tools HD, but we rarely record to 96 kHz because it takes so much drive space and we have so much content. The standard here is 24 bit at 44.1 kHz. They dump audio constantly. We get a certain allotted space; I have to manage and archive everything. It’s a constant process. For field recordings we’ll often record at 96 kHz; especially for the orchestral sessions.
I heard that you tried doing live sound at Maxwell’s.
I like being able to mix in a controlled environment, and that’s difficult in a loud room. You might ruin your hearing. I’ve tried it in a couple of venues. I did a few of the Loser’s Lounge shows at The Fez, and everybody wanted to play super loud. That’s not a good room for high volumes. It’s not for me. Andy Peters was the engineer at the time. He’s The Feelies’ live engineer when they tour, and he had it locked in. I kind of felt like a fish out of water. There may have been some resistance to a woman being in that position.
When I did live sound at Tonic we had a sound staff of all women engineers. It was pretty rare.
It’s less rare in public radio. Especially in the NPR stations, you see a lot of women engineers and that gave me a lot of confidence. But trying to come up through studios, I always felt like they were waiting for “the guy” to come in. I even get that here sometimes. A band will come in and say, “When the engineer gets here, can you tell him that...” I’ll be, “Hi! I’m the engineer!”
But you don’t experience that as much in radio?
Not as much. It’s a different environment. When I worked at WDHA I wondered if I lost my position there because they wanted a man’s voice on air doing the ads – not a woman’s voice.
Did you feel at all excluded from the “boy’s club” in the live sound world too?
Yeah, definitely. There are any number of factors. In certain situations, I felt like they wanted a guy doing it. Maybe it was a confidence thing, or maybe they had never encountered a woman engineer? Also, back in those days, I was not very good at doing live sound. In the mid ‘70s, when I first thought that radio might be the direction I might go, I tried to take a basic electronics class in my senior year of high school. The teacher flat out told me – and another girlfriend in the class – that women didn’t belong in this field, or his class, and criticized my work so much that I dropped out. My shyness might’ve played a role in this too. When I started taking electronics in college – three years after high school – attitudes changed a little, but I flunked out for various reasons. In my area of New Jersey there weren’t many women in this field. I didn’t feel encouraged to pursue it. Luckily I listened to my gut and stayed with it.
What are you most proud of that you’ve worked on?
It’s hard to say. There’ve been so many great moments. A few sessions we recorded in the old WFMU station have ended up on releases. Giant Sand had a record called Backyard Barbecue Broadcast. I worked on that. I recorded Mark O’Connor, Judson Fountain, and a Gary Lucas album [Busy Being Born]. I know there’s a Michael Hurley track I recorded somewhere [on Hurley’s album, Ancestral Swamp]. I also recorded Yo La Tengo performing a Daniel Johnston song, “Speeding Motorcycle,” that ended up on a record [as a 7-inch, and later compilation appearances]. That was such a fun session.
I love that song!
Daniel was on the phone. This was for The Music Faucet, and we were supposed to pipe it into the live room. They couldn’t hear a thing, so they just started playing. They could hardly hear him singing it over the phone. They were good sports about it. My friend, Nicholas Hill, put it out on his Singles Only Label. It’s funny, I don’t even think about these credits. Whenever I find that something has been issued, I’m like, “Oh, that’s kinda cool.”