Formerly chief engineer at Sear Sound [Tape Op #41], Tom Schick proved his skills in the studio with artists like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Sean Lennon, and Rufus Wainwright. As a freelance engineer in New York City, he worked on projects for M. Ward, Norah Jones, She & Him, Willie Nelson, and Iron & Wine. Now, as the house engineer at
The Loft in Chicago, he runs multitudes of sessions for Jeff Tweedy [see Jeff's interview this issue], including Jeff's band Wilco, as well as the various artists Jeff produces, like Low, Mavis Staples, and Richard Thompson.
Did you go to school at Berklee College of Music?
Yeah. I got an internship at Sear Sound the summer of my last year at Berklee. [The late] Walter Sear hired me. You knew Walter, and Roberta [Findlay], right?
Steve Masucci [Tape Op #124] took me over there once, and we sat with them for hours while they were chain smoking and telling stories.
They're amazing people. Walter hired me, and Roberta was pissed that he hired me. They needed an intern because they would get a beach house every summer, so they needed somebody to answer the phones and such. I was going back to school before they were done with their vacation, so Roberta was pissed. She's like, "He's useless!" For the whole summer, she would refer to me as, "That fucking moron kid." I'd be standing about five feet away, and she'd say to Walter, "Tell that fucking moron kid to clean the bathroom. It's filthy!" I'd do it, but at the same time I was in on every single session, running the tape machines and taking notes. I would show up early, and Walter would be there vacuuming and busting his ass. He'd be staying there even after I was leaving. By the end of the summer Roberta saw that I was useful to the studio, and then she was nice to me. But it took me a whole summer to win her over. She was a pretty good read of someone who would be a good worker, whereas Walter would hire whoever walked in the door. He'd like one thing on their resume. Walter hired me because I'd worked for my brother who had a commercial cleaning business. I mentioned that, and that they did record records the way that I liked. But he saw the cleaning aspect of it, and was like, "I want to hire him!"
That must have been a really intense learning ground.
Oh, yeah. Aside from hooking up with Jeff Tweedy and Wilco, getting that internship at Sear Sound was the best thing that's ever happened to me, career-wise or music-wise. He was an amazing person to work for and to listen to. Such a great mentor.
So, did you go back to school, finish up, and then come work for him?
Yeah. I went back to school, came back on winter break, went to New York, and then right back to the studio. I wanted to drop out. "This is what I want to do." But Walter insisted, "No, you're going to finish school, and we'll see if there's a place for you." He really valued an education. Walter and Roberta became my New York parents.
What was your learning growth like there, and when did you start engineering as a first engineer?
He put me in the studio right away. My first day there, I was there until about ten o'clock at night. There was a house engineer doing a session, so it was "watch and learn." I hadn't even been hired yet, and there I was, running the 1/2-inch machine and documenting it.
Were they mixing down?
No, it was a live to 2-track jazz session. I'm like, "This is amazing!" Walter's thing at the studio was that everybody did everything. I got to do a lot right away. There were two other guys who worked there as engineers. Fred Kevorkian ended up building a mastering room in the back of Sear Sound, so he wasn't doing as much in the main room. The other guy went freelance. Then it was just me and Fred, and the studio was booked nonstop. By default, the first record I engineered there was for Sean Lennon. He booked the studio based on the reputation and wanted to use the house engineer. By default, that was me.
Was that his album on Grand Royal Records?
Yeah, Into the Sun. It's a great album, and it was really fun. Sean walked in, and the way he liked to work was to record a song, mix it, and then record the next song and mix it. It was a really fun way to work. It was great. Yuka Honda was producing it. The first day of the session, we were recording a song and working really fast. We got a take, and then Sean and Yuka both had overdub ideas. We were working on tape; they both ran out and wanted to do it right away, a break for the bridge. I armed some new tracks, – I thought I'd disarmed everything – punched in right on the bridge, and I heard the drum sound totally change. I looked, and I saw the overheads were still in "record ready." I went through the whole bridge and punched out on the downbeat of the verse coming back in; then Sean and Yuka came back in the control room. I thought, "Oh, this is it. My first engineering session, and I'm fired." I told Sean and Yuka, "I'm really sorry. I fucked up. I'm sorry." They said, "Well, let's hear it." I played it; it got to the bridge, and the drum sound got really tight and then it opened back up. They said, "Oh, my god; that's great! We love it!" I was like, "Phew. Okay."
You might never have had the craziness to go punch in and erase drums, but when it works...
Oh, yeah! No Pro Tools. Walter was a holdout for that. It was tape. I feel like a lot of great records were made like that. Accidents would happen, and you'd work around the limitations.
Sear Sound must have been such a great place to learn. Walter could be really ridiculous with some of his statements though.
Yeah. Sometimes I feel like some of it was for show. "You only use equalization if you've made a mistake. That's why it's called corrective EQ." He started to come around a little bit towards the end. Pro Tools was allowed in the studio. It was actually my fault that he got Pro Tools. I'd been there for four or five years. He kept saying, "I don't want Pro Tools. It sounds like shit." Eventually I said, "Walter, I really feel like I'm falling behind. This is something that I need to know." Then eventually, I said, "I'm thinking about buying a rig." He's like, how much do you have saved up? He wrote me a check for $10,000 – an interest-free loan – to buy Pro Tools and bring it into the studio. And he said, "Now it's your problem."
Well, that's brilliant.
I put the whole thing together. I got it up and going. Walter had just finished the new studio, and an artist – I think it was Maxwell – booked it for six months, but they needed a Pro Tools rig. He said, "They can rent your rig." I set it up, and it would not work. All these computer guys came, and nobody could figure it out. I had a friend who had a system, and we were swapping out parts. Eventually I got part of it working with a hybrid from another rig, but this was thousands of dollars later I spent trying to get it to work! It turns out that Apple happened to make a run of computers that were incompatible with Pro Tools, but they didn't know.
What did Walter say?
"I told you!"
How many years were you working pretty much exclusively at Sear?
About five or six years. It would have been ‘94 to around 2000. In 2001 Walter finally told me, "You're ready to go freelance."
What were some pivotal sessions for you there?
I got to do a Bob Dylan session at Sear. I was told it would be five to ten musicians, Bob doesn't want to wear headphones, and don't talk to him. That was the only information I had. I set up a bunch of microphones in the live room. As the band started showing up, I'd put a microphone in front of them. It was a touring band at the time, and Al Kooper [Tape Op #73] playing organ. It was a song for a TV movie soundtrack. Then Dylan shows up, walks right into the live room, and grabbed a microphone I had up as a room mic. I think it was an RCA 77, and he started running through the song. Then he said, "Let's record one." I got on the talkback and said, "I recorded that, if you want to hear it." He was totally nice to me after that. He's like, "That's great!" It was a nice, painless session. A really good experience.
Plus, you did the right thing. You recorded early.
I recorded early. Then he said, "Is that the rankest mic you've got for the vocals?" I said, "I think so!" He's like, "Okay, good." That was the vocal mic that he used.
You know, when you look at his career, you can definitely see that he has a contentious relationship with the studio.
Yeah. He wants to walk in and do what he does. I feel like it's an engineer's job to capture sound and not get in the way; Not always worry about getting the perfect sound. It's more about being ready to record when the musician's ready to record, and deal with the rest later.
Right. You're known for working fast, too. People say, "He can get sessions going fast."
Yeah, sometimes a little too fast. I'll solo the kick drum and it's like, "Man, that sounds weird." I'll go out into the room and find the kick drum mic was on the floor. I try to get going and worry about the sound later. It's part of what's great about working here. We have it set up so that there're a lot of mics out in the room, and they're all plugged in all the time. If a full band wants to play, I'm ready to do it. If anybody has an idea, I can get a microphone in front of them in less than a minute.
You were obviously dealing with a wide variety of music.
Yeah. On some of those jazz sessions, I learned more than anything. There was this engineer, David Baker, who did all these jazz records. He was out of his mind, and he and Walter would fight with each other. But he was such a great engineer. He would send me setups and tell me to put up whatever I wanted.
Yeah. I did one session where I used all the microphones I'd never heard, and I didn't even know if they worked. All these weird microphones. I'm like, "Oh, this is really going to fuck with him." He's in the control room getting sounds, and the band's playing. I walk into the control room, and it sounds amazing! No EQ, no compression. That's when I realized that it's all about balance and the relationship between the instruments. He was actually one of the first guys I assisted with at Sear Sound, because none of the other guys wanted to work with him. He was surly with the bands! The bands would be out there getting ready to do another song. They'd be struggling with it, and he'd get on the talkback and say, "Uh, maybe we should try something that you guys know." But they all knew he had a reputation.
What other kinds of music did you work on?
All kinds of sessions. Little Jimmy Scott would come in. I got to be a tape op for a Paul McCartney session where he was with Elvis Presley's backing band. Tricky was there for a couple of days. I got to be a tape op on it. He had a guy who was more of a sequencer engineering it, but the way that he would work was so amazing. He'd have this guy get a sound for him. He'd be like, "Get a drum sound." He had a keyboard that was triggering different things. Then he'd say, "Okay, roll the tape." He would play it live onto the tape; then he'd get a different sound, ready a new track, and keep adding tracks like that. It sounded incredible.
Keeping it organic, in a way.
Yeah. Sonic Youth would do some sessions – it was fun to work on those. There was a project I got to assist on that was Thurston Moore, Steve Shelley, Ron Asheton from the Stooges, and Mike Watt playing bass.
The Wylde Ratttz? [For the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack.]
Yeah, The Wylde Ratttz! I didn't know it at the time, but Watt had borrowed Kim Gordon's bass. He broke a string on a session, and he's like, "Oh, fuck!" So, he puts a new string on it. Walter always used to put out lox, bagels, and cream cheese. I'm in the control room changing the tape reel; I looked out in the live room, and I see Mike Watt rubbing a piece of smoked salmon on the bass strings. Then he holds it up in the air, looks around, doesn't see anybody, and he doesn't know what to do with the fish, so he eats it, and then he plays! I went out and I'm like, "Wow, what was that?" He said, "I hate new strings." I wonder what Kim thought when she got her bass back!
What happened after Sear Sound? When we talked years ago, you were working at The Magic Shop [Tape Op #66].
Yeah, I was freelance at Magic Shop because that was a good studio and they had a good rate. I really loved that studio. After I did the record with Sean, that led to work with Rufus Wainwright because Sean was friends with Rufus. Everything led to something else. Then I worked with Jesse Malin. We had some mutual friends that Ryan Adams was producing. That led to a bunch of work with Ryan. Then I met Norah Jones when she played on a Ryan record. Then she introduced me to Matt Ward [M. Ward]. I got one lucky break, and it led to other things.
The funny thing is that you also mentioned a lot of people who are more attuned to the recording process than most.
Yeah. I think a lot of it goes back to Sear Sound. Being mentored by Walter carries some weight. Having a job there, people are like, "Okay, he knows what records are supposed to sound like." Getting that led to everything.
It's a lot of old school techniques. Live to 2-track jazz helps you keep your shit together.
Oh, which is fun. I got to engineer a lot of those at Sear Sound. It's amazing. Then you get in that mindset – I would try to pretend that everything was a live to 2-track.
It's got to sound good from the get-go.
Yeah, exactly. What we do here a lot is every time we do an overdub or work on a song, we do a new rough mix. Every time, it's a rough mix. Because we have unlimited recording space with Pro Tools, we can do that every time. On a lot of records there are a few rough mixes on it. We'll capture something that happens in the moment, and it's hard to get back to.
Sometimes you can overthink a proper mix later, after the song is "finished."
The key for me, for mixing and engineering, is not to think too much. When it starts to feel good, then I print it. I can't remember what record it was I worked on, but while I was still on staff at Sear Sound this album got sent to Bob Clearmountain [Tape Op #129] to mix. I got a phone call from Bob. He said, "I brought the track up and did my usual process, where I'd bring up each instrument and get it to where it sounded good. I did it three times, but I could not get it to sound good. It wasn't making any sense to me." I was like, "Uh-oh. I'm sorry." But then he said, "Then I brought all the faders up at once, and it made total sense. Great job."
Some records have to be done that way.
At that point in the time he was probably getting a lot of records where he'd listen to the drums and get them to sound good. But everything was in the room together, and the bleed was part of it.
Do you deal with a lot of that here in The Loft? It's an open-concept studio. There's not a whole lot of isolation.
I don't worry about it. Make it sound good. Jeff [Tweedy] will do a lot of live vocals, or replace them. If it's a really loud band with an acoustic guitar, that can be a little tricky. But if we get the right performance, it doesn't matter. Jeff and Spencer [Tweedy] do these amazing recordings right in this control room area. Jeff will be on the couch, and Spencer will set up the drums right where you are.
There's not a lot of room here!
They'll use a little kit. Those recordings are some of the coolest. There's no delay in the bleed. When we get bleed that's going into the acoustic guitar mic, it's almost like another close drum mic. Sounds are not getting bounced around before they get to the microphone. At Sear Sound the room wasn't big, but it was dead, so I could do any kind of recording with people in the room together. The bleed was always really pleasant and musical.
How did you end up meeting Jeff and the Wilco crew?
We had mutual friends for years. I did a Joseph Arthur record years ago that Pat Sansone was playing bass on before he was in Wilco, so I knew Pat that way. I had a manager at the time, and the engineer that Jeff had hired to do the first Mavis [Staples] record [You Are Not Alone] here, he was managing him. That engineer bailed out; he had to cancel right before the session. It was last minute, so my ex-manager recommended me to Jeff. Jeff looked at my discography and said, "Okay; I don't have a choice!" I flew in. I was actually in Montreal doing a session with Phil Ramone [Tape Op #50] at the time, so I flew back to New York and flew right here. We started recording the Mavis record that day. We did it start to finish in this room, when it had a Sony board. We mixed it here too. I think it was the first project that was done from start to finish at The Loft, and it won a Grammy [for Best Americana Album]. It's like, "Okay, this is good! Let's keep going."
That's a nice start. We talked about your expediency in the studio and being able to deal with bleed. Do you think that helped you to be in the right headspace to work with Jeff in a space like this?
This space is like my dream studio. It's how I'd build a studio, if I could build a studio and it already existed. I hated having to open a door to go adjust a microphone.
The typical studio.
That's great for isolation, but it's nice to make a record where everybody's involved all the time, even if somebody's in the kitchen having a snack. They're still listening to the music.
You were doing acoustic slide overdubs yesterday when I was supposed to be leaving, but we were all in the kitchen whispering to each other. Do you ever have to go around the corner and say, "Hey, shut up!"
Every once in a while, but it's part of the record. There used to be a canning company upstairs. Luckily their business was slow, but every time they'd get an order in, the whole building would shake. There were some records where we'd have that on it, or the freight elevator starts going. The only time it ever became an issue, where it slowed us down, was when Jeff was doing his audiobook.
He told me that yesterday! So early on you kept having to fly out from New York and work. Was it crazy to make a home base change based on work?
It seemed pretty natural, because I spent a few years going back and forth. After a couple of years, it felt like home as much as New York. I love New York, and I miss New York. I lived there for 20 years.
It's a very different energy.
Somebody said to me once that New York is a place where all of your amenities are stripped away and are sold back to you as luxuries. I was like, "That makes sense."
How long ago did you move from New York to here?
Almost five years. We were in Brooklyn, and I was coming here basically two weeks out of every month. My wife and I were like, "Let's move to Chicago." We're both from Cleveland, originally. I like it here.
You're doing other sessions in here when the band's on tour or hiatus. Last year there wasn't any Wilco activity, I believe?
Well, that was probably my busiest year here, because Jeff worked on about 100 songs. When Wilco takes time off, Jeff doesn't. He's busting his ass all the time. Whenever he can, he's in here. He'll come in and get an idea down, every day. It's such an incredible work ethic. I'll do other projects when Jeff or Wilco goes on tour; but when they're not on tour, we're here every day.
That seems unusual to me, but I think it shows in his work and his writing.
Oh, yeah. He's still growing as a songwriter and a musician. He's always striving to get better. He never coasts.
Do you feel that work ethic rubs off on everyone around?
Oh, yeah. It's infectious and exciting. It's a great energy to be around. I'm really lucky to get to work on great music every day.
Jeff's solo record Warm came out a little while ago.
I don't think it's been announced yet, but he also has Warmer – a whole other record [out on Record Store Day 2019]. Warm were the songs that fit together. It's not like songs were left off because they weren't as good. It was more about those songs that went together, so that they were the record. I feel like with Jeff, there are very few B-sides. There are just extra tracks.
Does it take a little bit to make sure you have everything backed up, and cataloged as well, to go back and find songs and ideas when he's that prolific?
Oh, my god; yeah. We're working on a two terabyte drive. Every year I go through, and I'll make a folder of what's finished and released. That goes into a backup system, "Finished and Released," that Spencer set up downstairs. Then there's what carries on to the next year. Jeff will remember songs he did three or four years ago, like maybe with an acoustic guitar or an iPhone recording, and he'll be like, "Can you find that one? I think it might really work." It'll still be on the drive. But it is a challenge keeping up with that. I'm still developing a system.
When you came in here, all the gear was in place and there was a Sony console, originally?
Yeah, it was a Sony, but it was based off of the MCI. The [Neve] BCM10 wasn't here for the first Mavis record, but the racks of API [preamps] were. I've always loved the APIs for drums. The [Studer] tape machine was here.
Has there been equipment you really wanted that you leaned towards bringing in? Is any of the gear actually yours?
You know, the main mic we use on Jeff's acoustic guitar is mine. It's a Neumann CMV-563 with the M7 lollipop capsule. Jeff loved it, and then he got one that we use on the drum kit now, in front of the drums. Jeff's collected microphones. He got a [Neumann U] 47; that wasn't here when I got here. I bought a couple of Coles , and he's got some Coles of his own too. Jeff and I have the same aesthetic, so when he finds something, it's like, "That's great!"
The other thing that's crazy about this place is the extensive amount of instruments, amplifiers, and such.
That's the thing with bands. When I do other bands here, I tell them not to bring anything. A lot of times they'll bring something, like a security blanket. But it's incredible for a band to have access to this many instruments. A band can walk in, and they can be tracking within a half an hour of taking their coats off. It's nice to have a home base where I don't have to go into a studio and do the whole set up, and then test all the lines and everything. One thing I really like about this studio is the Pro Tools screen is not in between the speakers. I like having it not be a "visual" thing. I use my eyes over there, and my ears over here. It helps me separate things. I don't sit there doing edits in front of the speakers.
And you get to look at Rich Kelly & Friendship while you listen. [There's an amazing array of photos between the speakers at The Loft. -ed.]
Yeah, and Bob Newhart and Don Rickles.
I think all that shows up in Jeff's book [Let's Go (So We Can Get Back)], doesn't it?
Yeah. The Bob Newhart one was signed at some point, but it faded out.
With the amount of work you have, day to day, are you saying "No" to a lot of people wanting to make a record with you?
Yeah, a good amount. The timing can be tricky. Wilco's going to do a little more touring this year, so maybe it'll be a little bit easier to schedule. I have a manager who's great with that. I feel like it gets to the point where sometimes people are like, "Oh, Tom's just working with Jeff and Wilco."
They write you off?
Yeah, after saying, "No," so many times. But when it does line up and people come here, they're blown away.
Is there a vetting process? Like you don't want the wrong people in the space?
Oh, yeah. It's a personal space. It's like Jeff's home. We're really careful with that, and who can come in here. Everybody who comes in here is sensitive to that. This is his home, and these are his instruments. We get great people who are respectful; it's all friends. I'm at the point of my career where if I'm not really into something, I don't have to do it. Luckily that doesn't happen very often. I have a pretty wide palette of what I like!