I met Enrique Tena Padilla when he, along with Eric Bauer, engineered, produced, and mixed the last two Oh Sees records (Orc and Smote Reverser) at Sonic Ranch [Tape Op #94], outside of El Paso, Texas. Over the years I've worked with a lot of different engineers, but I really like working with Enrique - he's coming from a different perspective than me, in both life and art. We definitely disagree on certain things but it's the compromise and the path that makes the results interesting and fruitful.
How did you end up in Texas engineering?
I was curious about making records when I was 17 and was choosing what career to study. My parents really wanted me to go to college. I ended up going to Mexico City for recording school in 2011. I learned a couple of things, but it wasn't until I heard Bloom by Beach House, in 2012, that I became obsessed with the finer details of how that particular record was made.
Did they make that record at Sonic Ranch?
Yes! I remember discovering that by reading the booklet; "Oh, Sonic Ranch?" It was summer break, and when we came back to school, I was talking to one of my friends about what he did in the summer. He said, "I just went to this crazy place called Sonic Ranch." I was like, "Please give me an email of whoever you know there." I emailed them for half a year until they were finally like, "Okay, come on over."
"Stop emailing me!"
Yeah! [laughs] We did a quick interview over the phone, and I was throwing out all my certifications from school. Marco [A. Ramirez, engineer at Sonic Ranch] answered, "I don't even know what that means!" I realized that school didn't really matter. Marco said, "If we like you, you can stay as long as you want." It didn't really matter what I did, or didn't know, technically; it was more about my vibe.
Yeah, the golden rule; "Don't be a dick."
Yeah. So, for my next summer break I went to Sonic Ranch.
What was the first record you worked on there?
It was awesome. We worked with this band, Communión, from Mexico City and producers Milo Froideval and Manuel Calderón, are both really big influences on me. The fact of being there, and making an actual record, was really different. Tony [Rancich, Sonic Ranch's owner] explained to me the importance of being an intern, and how little things -- like changing the perception of the room by turning on a light - can change the whole vibe of the recording.
Were you going between Sonic Ranch and school in Mexico?
Yeah, I was getting into a lot of trouble in school. Any time there was a cool recording session, I'd call in "sick" and fly to the Ranch. I was learning things at the studio that I wasn´t learning in school. The moment finally came when I was asked to fly in for a Beach House mixing session, for Thank Your Lucky Stars. That was huge; it brought me full circle to what lead me to the Ranch in the first place! These adventures away from school let me sit in on recording sessions with TV On The Radio, Davíd Garza, and [the Tejano/Norteño band] Intocable.
Was it worth it to skip school?
Yeah. I took the couple dollars I had and went to the recording sessions. I met David Sitek [TV On The Radio's co-founder, producer] and we really bonded. He was giving me some shit about going back to school. I remember him being like, "Hey, you do realize you can come with me to the Austin City Limits Music Festival and meet all these bands if you want? But keep going back to school, nerd." There was this pressure of, "Why keep going to something that I'm already learning exponentially, and in a place where records are made?" But now that I think about it, the fact I actually finished school feels really comforting. If you can finish school, you can definitely finish a record.
How did you get my email? That's how we met.
I was going to Sonic Ranch more often, and I began to help Tony with some general management aspects of the studio, but I was trying to get back to the recording side. I figured the best thing I could do is what I've always done: Send emails. I remember Sitek was always talking about all his friends, and how he was telling them stories about the Ranch. I was trying to get Sitek's friends to go to there. He used to talk about you all the time, which really fascinated me. Our mutual friend Kat [Kittie Harloe] was hanging in the studio, and I was, "Could you give me John's email?" It ended up being the perfect time to send you an email.
I was looking for a place to record. Having us spend the night there after we played in El Paso was genius.
Yeah, that was a good move. Tony has done that for years - bands can always stay at the Ranch.
My band always does a lot of our recording live. How do you feel about working live like that in the studio?
It's my favorite. I don't want to do records anymore that don't have a live band. I was really lucky, in that before you I worked on two records with Rob [Fraboni]. He's a recording legend, and he showed me the ropes of live recording. He was the master of it. He walks around the live room and he marks - with Xs on the floor - the sweet spots in the room.
As the band is playing?
No, he's just talking. He listens to his own voice and marks the sweet spots in the room. The best sweet spots are where he puts the room mics.
How many room mics does he place?
It depends. Nothing is ever close mic'd. He opens all the channels and there's this depth of field and dimension that's mind-blowing.
Is it a really roomy sounding recording? Those rooms aren't super reverby.
He did those sessions in the same room where we did Orc and Smote Reverser. In my opinion the Adobe Studio is the best room in Sonic Ranch. It's a cool room also, because there are no iso booths. It's a rectangle and people see each other. Working with Fraboni was great preparation for working with you.
There have been two times now where I'm really glad you put up the room mics. Initially I didn't want a room mic.
Yeah. A bunch of your cymbals came from the room mics.
I'd never recorded a whole record with Eric [Bauer]. I forced the two of you to work together.
I think me and Bauer clicked instantly. We had this yin and yang in every aspect -complementary abilities. Bauer pays really amazing attention to detail; he's always in an adaptive and corrective mentality. Every time I lay down a sound I feel comfortable with, he asks for more. As the recording keeps going, he's changing the sound. Sometimes it's good, and sometimes not. But when it's good, it's great! I come up with the first approach, and then Bauer comes in to finesse it.
How was it working with tape for the first time? Was that on our record?
No, I'd worked on tape before.
But this was the first one you produced and engineered by yourself?
Yeah, running the whole session. I tape-opped a little on a couple of previous records. A lot of things I never thought about came into play. How crazy the tape smells, or when I discovered that as a tape op, I should wear a ponytail. A bunch of times I was really close to getting my head smashed into the tape machine from getting my hair caught. It is such a mechanical approach to what we always see done so fast on Pro Tools.
Both have their benefits, but what do you prefer?
I love not looking at a computer screen. I feel like what we do is a really ambiguous art. The fact that we can't see it makes it so we really focus on what we're actually shaping. Whenever I can focus on what I'm listening to, troubleshooting becomes easier. The decisions made are more focused on the music.
Are there any microphones that Sonic Ranch has or that you own that you love?
I got really spoiled there. They have every single mic.
What would you automatically grab for drum recording?
Those vintage AKG C12s are the greatest in the world. Especially on your records - that you have two drum sets - me and Bauer were able to play with different colorations of what the different mics do.
What are some of the recordings you're doing here in L.A.?
I'm working with this band Wand. Those guys are great - you actually introduced me to them. My latest obsession is converting this giant mirror cube art piece my friends found for free on Craigslist into a recording studio.
Where is the cube?
The cube is now in Pasadena. I called up your [Castle Face Records] partner, Matt Jones, "I have this crazy mirror cube [by Los Jaichackers; artists Eamon Ore-Giron and Julio Cesar Morales]." It was displayed in LACMA [Los Angeles County Museum of Art] and the SFMOMA [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art]. I wanted to make it a recording studio. "Can I put it in your backyard?" Matt was like, "Oh man, my girlfriend's going to kill me. But let's do it!"
Last question. Describe in ten words or less, Sonic Ranch and Tony Rancich.
It's a different reality that takes things to the next level.
Eleven words. Good job! Anything you want to add before we close up?
Keep the importance of having your buddies coming over to your bedroom and doing recordings, and to keep pursuing that same feeling. How important it is to send an email to everybody! That's the best recording and production technique that you can ever have. Ask as many questions as you can, and knock on as many doors as you can. Some of them will open. And Mexico City rules!