Emma Ruth Rundle
Recordist Sonny DiPerri has worked with Nine Inch Nails, Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, Portugal. The Man, Emma Ruth Rundle, La Femme, Radiation City, and Protomartyr. The group El Ten Eleven recently wrapped up their tenth album, Banker's Hill, at Panoramic House (a studio co-owned by Tape Op's John Baccigaluppi) with Sonny producing and engineering, and Kristian Dunn of the band wanted to pick Sonny's brain about his career and making records. -LC
How did your career get started?
In college I got the bug to be in a band, to be a musician. But I was too afraid to commit to the artist lifestyle and my bands fell apart. I had this crazy idea that I was going to move to Los Angeles, rent a house with four friends, and we were gonna have a band. Because two of the guys were engineers, they were going to teach me how to record. So, I made a gear list based on their recommendations, and I thought, "Cool. We're gonna move to Los Angeles and do it." Then people didn't show up to the airport when it came time to fly out and find the house.
You were at the airport and people didn't show up?
Yes! I helped people buy their plane tickets. They paid me for the plane tickets and we said, "We'll go out to L.A." I went to the airport and I was the only person at the gate! Nobody showed up, and no one would get back to me. I freaked out. Massive panic attack in [the Boston International] Logan Airport, but I came out [to California] and it was fine.
Is Boston where you grew up?
Yes. I moved out to L.A. a couple months later. That's when my roommate at the time said to me, "I found an ad on the UTA [United Talent Agency] job list. It says multi-platinum band with A-list producer seeks recording studio assistant." Super nebulous. I thought being a recording studio assistant was what I wanted to do. This was day five of living in California. I didn't have a bed to sleep on. I answered this ad and I interviewed with the band's day-to-day manager. He said, "This is for Thirty Seconds to Mars. We've got Flood [Tape Op #117] producing the record. You're going to be getting lunch, getting coffee, taking trash out, whatever."
Did you know who Flood was, at the time?
No. So I said, "Great! I'll do that." They said, "You have no experience, but we'll see if the band likes you. We'll see if the producer likes you." The following day I went to this address, which turned out to be the band's house, and I met with Shannon [Leto] and Tomo [Milicevic]; the drummer and guitar player, respectively. I walked into the studio and I had never seen Pro Tools before. They asked me if I had ever recorded any of my own music, and I hadn't. I was terrified. I thought, "Why did I do this? This is not going to work." They said, "Well, why don't you come back tomorrow and meet our producer?" I came back the next day and met Flood, but I didn't know who he was. I ended up talking to him for a few hours. He asked me what I liked about records, what I didn't like, what albums I enjoyed, and so on. What's really embarrassing is that I pretty much talked about half of his discography.
And not knowing it?
No. I had no idea. I was explaining how and when I thought some artists made shifts that I thought were cooler and way more interesting. Most of those records were him. He was totally cool. Then I went home, Googled him, and realized, "Oh, I am definitely not getting hired." But sure enough, they hired me! I started off every day making coffee, getting lunch, taking out trash, cleaning the studio, tuning every guitar, every bass, etc. Because I'm a drummer, I was also tech'ing the drum kit and making sure it sounded the way that Shannon wanted. I did that for months. They were writing and recording simultaneously.
So that was months of Thirty Seconds
Yeah. I was actually on that record for almost a year
and a half.
Can you look back and think about what you knew on day one versus what you knew by the last day?
There were two assistants - me and another guy - and he had a lot of experience. He was really cool about showing me the basics, and Flood was really cool about showing me the intermediate basics, plus some more philosophical recording ideas and techniques to try. I was so bad at making coffee that I was I was forced to go into the control room and become the assistant. It was incredibly embarrassing. I thought I was getting fired. Flood said, "Look, I've been making records for over 30 years, and I don't understand how you can't make decent coffee. I'm going to relieve you of your duties; you're now going to take recall notes." I had no experience.
Presumably you were better on the recall notes than the coffee making?
Now you're really good at making coffee.
Oh, man, thank you! That record [This Is War] was really important for me. People talk about getting on an escalator and getting a fast-tracked career path or education in recording. I got on an elevator. I saw these really talented engineers, who were also producers and mixers, coming through these sessions and recording a drum set. I thought, "Oh, that's how you do it." I had to record a lot when a producer was out, or an engineer was off for the weekend. I'd have to sit there and say, "Why does my work sound really bad, and this other person's sounds really good?" The band would want this other person's sound.
Was the mixing console soaking wet from all of your sweat during those sessions?
There was no console in that studio! It had a lot of outboard gear. I think they were ahead of the curve, because it became the modern setup. It's how my studio is set up now, as well as a lot of places, where it's great microphones, great preamps, EQs, and compressors. It all comes up on the patchbay and right into the interface.
What happened when that record was finished?
I called Flood to check in. As a joke, I told him that I bought a ticket and was coming to London. He said, "Well, I wouldn't come in October because I don't really have any work then, but you should come in January when I have some work. Just move your ticket." I was very quickly hustling to buy a ticket! I moved to London for a little bit. During the day, I observed and shadowed Flood and Rob Kirwan. Rob's a brilliant engineer and producer. I watched them do some singles for the band Editors. It was that permission I needed to essentially be the weirdo that I always was. Most engineers don't allow you to do vocals in the control room or put the guitar cabinet on its back.
There's a "right" way to do things.
Yeah, and there's merit to that. You gotta learn how to crawl before you walk, so learning the basics is really important. I think that's still something that I stress within myself. I worked during the day for those dudes, and at night I was recording vocals for an artist who Alan was mixing.
Yes, Alan Moulder. When Flood would finish up around seven or eight o'clock, I would go down to Alan's mix room and sit on the back couch. When he would take a break, I'd ask a question or whatever. He was mixing Interpol [Tape Op #43], and I ended up recording Paul Banks' vocals for a few songs. It was a trip. I didn't know that it was Interpol. I didn't know that it was Paul.
Who did you think it was?
I didn't know. I'd listened to Interpol, but I didn't know what they looked like. Paul approached me and said, "Alan said there's an American in the building who can record my voice. Is that you?" I said, "Yes!" One of the things that I took away from that apprenticeship is that it's not about equipment. I think anyone can learn that. I think it's really about the artist's mindset and how to help them get the wacky ideas out that they have. Just be a consummate professional and serve, serve, serve those people. You can find the specifics that they truly want. I think about that every day.
Then you came back to L.A.
Yes, and I did about six more apprenticeships with all these different producers. I was more confident in my engineering, which was still pretty raw and rough around the edges. At least I felt comfortable with my microphone technique and experience.
How did you get those apprenticeships?
Well, on the …Mars record, with all of the engineers and producers who came through...
So, it started there?
Just assisting those people.
At some point did you start getting hired to engineer or produce?
It was really engineering. There were a few producers I'd work with. Tom Biller was someone who I worked with for a long, long time. He would take me to Sunset Sound or EastWest Studios - all these awesome studios. Eventually he would back off and say, "Why don't you do the recording, and I'll do the producing?" Tom would produce, and I would engineer. That's how it started. I also was a staff engineer at some smaller studios (The Lair and Kingsize Soundlabs) that would have bigger artists come in. I was the person assisting the producer and engineer who would come in. That's when I really started learning a lot. There was one session that I know was a big shift for me.
What session was that?
It was Portugal. The Man in 2010. They were finishing In the Mountain in the Cloud. They had started recording down at Sonic Ranch [Tape Op #94] in El Paso, Texas. I think they were down there for a while, and the record was coming along pretty well. They needed to touch it up in L.A., though I don't know the specifics. I was the assistant on that record, and I knew the room at Kingsize well, so I knew [to tell them], "Okay, don't use channel five, because when the EQ comes on, it's noisy. And don't put the mics in this pocket of the room. It's really weird sounding." I was a fan of the band. I'd been listening to their old group, Anatomy of a Ghost, before they were even Portugal. In the middle of a two or three week session, the producer and engineer said, "We're off. We'll see you on Monday." I was taking care of the backup for the hard drive and cleaning up. The singer, John [Gourley], walked up to me and said, "Hey, we'll see you tomorrow." I thought we were taking a day off, but I said, "Okay, cool. See you tomorrow." We ended up doing a song from scratch, which is called "Head Is a Flame (Cool with It)," almost to completion. They touched it up a little later with the producer, John Hill, who did a great job with that record. We got on as friends.
The producer, John, wasn't there?
No, it was just the band and me. I was really nervous and intimidated by the band, because they had lived in my stereo. Now I was sitting with them asking, "What kind of guitar do you want to use?" It was very, very intimidating, but John [Gourley, vocals] is very good about disarming people's nerves. Zach [Carothers, bass] is so friendly. They're like, "Yeah, let's do whatever. Let's put the amp in the hallway." Fast-forward two years, and I was still working on and off for different people. John, the band, and the band's manager called me to go to Sonic Ranch. I think it was for five or six weeks in 2012, to start what became Evil Friends. They told me, "We don't have a producer yet. We're talking to a few people, but why don't you come make some music and help us start the record?" They ended up getting Danger Mouse [Brian Burton] to sign on. Two of the songs that we did in El Paso made it right to the end. They did some additional production, as well as some cool keyboards and pitch shifting; but the band and the band's manager did me a massive solid and gave me co-production [credit] on two songs, which was awesome. It really did a lot for me. While I was in El Paso, I got a phone call from a manager who said, "I got your number from Alan Moulder. This artist I have is seeking an in-house engineer/programmer/nerd guy. Are you interested?" I said, "Yeah, sure. Who's is it for?" "Oh, it's for Trent Reznor [Nine Inch Nails]."
I remember my heart sank. I thought, "Oh, boy. I don't know if I'm ready for this." I ended up doing a remix with Trent, Atticus [Ross], and Alessandro [Cortini]. It was the most eye-opening thing I could've done, because I watched three people who I respected and have listened to since I was a young kid. That turned into a whole Spring tenure, working at Trent's studio. I was the in-house engineer, helping them record. That was the real trial by fire. Keeping up with those people is the hardest work I've ever done.
What was Trent Reznor like to work with?
It was everything that I had been looking for in a studio situation; the bar is set impossibly high, but not in a rude way. He's going to push you to do what you've never thought that you could do.
What's a specific example?
I had never seen a studio that had four computers running off of one computer. He said, "Okay, you need to be able to use that computer in the back of the room, because that's our drum programming computer. That's synced up to this main computer. To the right is this other computer - that's my personal workstation - and you have to be able to sync that and clock it to the main rig. But it also has its own patchbay, so you have to be able to use all this other gear [that I hadn't seen before]. We start writing on Monday." It was "jump out of the plane and build your parachute on the way down." I had never worked on an SSL Duality [console] before. I had to get trained by SSL - a tech had to come up and show me how it worked. It was so much to learn. I was also allowed to say, "We should try this pedal, this sequencer," and if someone didn't like it, we'd kick it out. Trent would say, "At this moment in the song, it needs to sound like the tweeters broke on the speakers. Figure it out." I've got Trent and Atticus looking at me going, "Come on, man. Are we doing this or not?" They're not joking around. You're helping them make art.
Do you have PTSD from that session?
No. Even though I didn't have the skill set that I have now, it made me so fast and comfortable in helping other people work.
When you produced Animal Collective, you would take a song, deconstruct it, and re-record it with different instruments and arrangements.
I had never worked with an artist like them before. We would record something, let it sit for a few days, and then bring it back up and start to do different versions of it. One version where there're no drums, a version where the guitar is now the keyboard, the bass is now a Moog instead of a Höfner, or vice versa. We called it doing "inversions." It became really, really important to me, and I had never worked like that before. Before the sessions for Painting With, I'd get together with Dave [Portner] and he showed me demos that sounded totally different from where we ended up. They went and jammed those songs on their own, reworked them, and relearned them with all new instruments. They showed those to me; when we got to the studio, we did even more. That turned into doing versions of the songs until we found the right ones.
Can you remember a particular song on that record that changed drastically because of this process?
Oh, yeah. For the first single, "FloriDada," the original version was slower, if I remember correctly. It was almost like a like a cheapish drum machine with a guitar. If you listen to that song now, it's four-on-the-floor drums with a massive two and four clacking of the backbeat, and it's way faster and way brighter. I remember thinking that I never thought that we would go there with that. A funny fact about the majority of that record that most people don't know is that it's live. They all had these workstations, and the fundamental takes are totally live.
Wow. With all these amazing producers, were you watching not just the technical end, but also how they worked with artists? Including producers who did things that you wouldn't do, like screaming at people.
I definitely saw that. That one doesn't go in my bag of tricks. The guy really knew how to get good guitar sounds from those sessions. I learned a lot of what I like and what I don't like, as well as what I think the artists like and don't like. Being yelled at is maybe not high on the list. Or working for a producer who doesn't show up for four days. Don't be that person.
For my band, this was the first time we ever really wanted to work with a producer. You were good about hiding the fact that you were a fan of ours when we first met. Is that a technique you use when you meet new musicians, if you're a fan?
No, I think there's a way to pay someone respect when you meet them for the first time. A good producer is somebody who approaches you from a place of respect in a way that's more about the people than the records. If the people are in good shape, the records will be in good shape. Meeting you guys and being a fan made it exciting for me to hang out. I wanted to see what you and Tim [Fogarty] were like, behind the curtain.
What did you think when you heard our demos?
What always comes to mind is all of the non-musical conversations that I have with anyone before we work together. I know we talked about a lot of different subjects, so all of that conversation influenced my hearing of your demos. I remember you saying, "We want help with arranging and making parts more complicated, or less complicated." Essentially having a sounding board throughout the process. Normally, when I listen to demos, I would listen with those ideas in mind. But also, because I really am sensitive, I listen for music that affects me. I would listen and go, "Okay, this section here really does something for me as a listener. I don't know what it is. I can't really touch it." But I'd know that we had to figure out how to make the other two sections either connect to it or make me feel something similar. There's a really good example. When we were working at Panoramic House recording the record, you did a take of "Phenomenal Problems." You said, "I'm sorry. I was thinking about my daughter while I was tracking." That, to me, changed the entire sound of the song. All of my decisions and suggestions were based off of, "Can we make this song feel or sound more like your daughter, or the way that you thought about your daughter at that moment in time?"
Yeah. That's why I think I was always pushing for simple choices. A child is simple, and is discovering and exploring. That's what we were doing in the studio. I was constantly thinking about what you and Tim were looking to get out of your record. You'd said that you were unable to experiment with different instruments or tones in the past, so I knew that was important. That influenced a lot of my listening.
I read a quote recently, from someone in Joan of Arc who said, "It's a lot easier to make your first record than your tenth record."
That's actually a really good quote. I prefer to work with people who want to do something new. A new direction for them that is inherently who they are as people, but they never get to fully inject into the music. I got that from you and Tim. With artists' first recordings, I think the reason people like them so much is because they break the force field. They're completely honest. "This is who I am." When you reach record five or record ten, sometimes it's harder than making the first one. Some artists feel that they've used up all the colors in their palette.
I used to be one of those people who, when people would talk about studios and say, "It was a magical studio," I'd always roll my eyes. I'd think studios are sterile factories. But I was massively affected by our environment at Panoramic House. There's so much about that studio that was fantastic.
Our secret weapon was the veil of fragility that we were all encompassed by. We were all on a new turf. We had three drum sets going. There were a lot of moving parts, and a lot of unknown exploration. We started working around 9 or 10 a.m. and stopped around 11 p.m. or midnight, but we never felt like we were "working." I think that was my favorite part of the studio. Tim and I had the freedom to sit there and try every drum machine sound we could come up with. It was that freedom, as well as the lack of distraction. I felt like a different person up there as well. I couldn't believe Tim could play drums that much, for that long. We would track until dinner. I remember the first week was drums until dinner every day. Consistent takes, and consistent sound. I don't know how he did it. But I'm always curious to know if the live/work vibe is good for people.
It was for me. I love cooking. That's my way to relax. I could start making dinner while you guys were still working on tracks.
I think everyone's headspace, the artist's included, is the best piece of equipment.