Andrew Sarlo's sense of being grounded, coupled with his simultaneous respect for personality and human emotion made for a unique and rewarding interview experience. Even with credits like Nick Hakim, Bon Iver, and Big Thief under his belt, as well as an already-established path into L.A.'s world of professional production, the 28-year old claims he's, "Still a baby, and I'm growing." Taking time away from a new project, Andrew chatted with me about what it was like learning under the masters at Berklee College of Music, the emotional response that music is capable of, and what that should mean to producers.
Where are you based these days?
I moved to L.A. the summer of 2017. Right now I'm purely freelance, working out of whichever provided studios, but I definitely have aspirations to have my own spot. I want to have the ability to have folks over, but it's frustrating. I can't do that right now because my house can't really accommodate that. I'm working towards having my own room and am looking forward to that.
What kind of rooms do you like?
I like studios that are a bit contained. Where you can choose to have ambience or not, depending on where you put up a microphone. But really, I'd stress the control room the most. With a control room, you want a sanctuary of possibility. The best-sounding control room you can pull off will really inspire something you didn't think was possible. That's what makes a studio great. [I find] the playback in a lot of studios is difficult to trust. It's really hard to fight acoustics in control rooms, but if I'm in a studio where I make one or two EQ moves and I suddenly realize I'm piloting the experience super easily, I quickly see how it's the room helping me do that. If the room is making me feel comfortable and I trust it, I'm able to stretch so much further than I thought I could. It's seldom that I've been in quality rooms like that, and it makes wanting my own room even more urgent.
How did you get into recording?
I started as bass player when I was a kid. When I was 11 or 12, my friends and I all decided one afternoon that we would start a band covering Green Day. At 14 to 18, I was making really hilarious compositions with GarageBand and Logic for my friends and I to have a laugh. If you pull up the "tenor sax" MIDI patch in GarageBand you can't not smile. I flirted with hip-hop beats, which didn't last all that long. I would go onto the iTunes music store and go to the "electronic" music category to find cool album covers, which would later reveal themselves as Burial and Four Tet. I got very absorbed in finding out how they did it.
You ended up at Berklee, which has a great reputation.
Yeah. It's a very expensive endeavor – thank you, Dad! There is an advantage to having SSL and API [consoles] everywhere for your training, but it's insane to think people need to spend that much money to become considered "trained." It helps getting used to gear that is in common studios you may go work in but, at the same time, I would say I resent gear culture.
How do you mean?
I firmly believe the chemistry of people working together, or having peace with your vulnerability, will bring you better results than any piece of gear can. Is it even worth listening to a bad song recorded well?
What is Berklee like?
You have people like Susan Rogers [Tape Op #117] as your instructor. I remember we had a project to deconstruct a song, re-record it, and try to make it sound like the original recording. I picked the Bon Iver song "Skinny Love." I was doing this sound-alike with a few friends who also went to Berklee, trying to get them to sound like Bon Iver, and I couldn't get it. I went to Susan and had a mini breakdown, telling her, "This is impossible." I'll never forget when she smiled and said, "Andrew, that's exactly the point."
That's great! Should a vibe start differently for every project, or do you try and recreate acoustic fingerprints in advance for an artist based on input they gave before you start?
It's a cop out to say it's different on every project, but really, it is. There are a lot of typical processes we go through working on records, such as hearing "reference tracks," and I find there is never really "the best time" to hear someone's reference tracks. It's never like, "Before we start, let's have a listen to music you like and then everything will come together afterwards." Really, it comes down to understanding the person's interests. Not necessarily their musical influences, but understanding them as much as I can, and what looks good on them. These days the demo will come in and it's already sounding great. Nick Hakim is a great example. When Nick shows me a demo, it's almost a given we are going to keep a whole lot of it in the final recording because there is no need to take backsteps. I feel like that's the new sweet spot for engineers because of the advancements in inexpensive gear – to take someone's demo that has really good moments in it, and adapt to commercial-ready production – if that matters to the project or artist.
I liked your production on the Big Thief record U.F.O.F.
We recorded all of U.F.O.F. at Bear Creek Studio, outside Seattle, in three weeks while we all lodged inside the studio as well. We engineered, produced, and mixed it all there in those weeks, and I doubt I'll ever want to do that again! [laughs] It was a stressful experience, and it definitely was the most demanding record I've worked on yet, but it prompted all of us to be on our A-game, which was inspiring. There were obvious moments when it started to feel claustrophobic, staying and recording in the same place with x-amount of the same people around, but no one ever went full Shining. Dom Monks, who engineered the record, is truly the nicest person, but he even had one little episode, which was shocking. We were all working so hard that it was only natural we would feel the edge at times. But serious kudos to Taylor Carroll at Bear Creek for facilitating a fluid experience for us. He was so on top of everything we needed that it never got too painful to work. We had energy, somehow, every day. Plus, the Pacific Northwest fresh air experience, when walking out of a control room and into nature, was truly breathtaking.
Was any material born out of a creative process of using the studio as an instrument?
Tons. The main guitar on "Jenni" was James Krivchenia's idea to run Adrianne Lenker's guitar signal through three different amps, all with separate pedal chains and mic'd up in their giant live room. The ambiences at the end of "Magic Dealer" is the sound of James' Casio keyboard through a series of stereo effects, and we all volume rode different passages together on the Trident console during mixdown for that song's outro. One of my favorite things we did was James played the backbeat of the song "U.F.O.F." not only with his kit but also by pushing in and out the quarter slot of the studio's portable phonograph recording booth in the back of the live room. It's an old relic; one of those old machines that you can go inside like a phone booth and record yourself straight onto a 45. James used the quarter slot and pushed it back and forth for the whole song. It was comically perfect.
Which producers or engineers inspire you?
I do really appreciate Nigel Godrich's work. I'd also put Dave Fridmann [Tape Op #17] in there. Sometimes I hear one of his mixes and I'm speechless. Derek Ali, Kendrick Lamar's engineer, is prioritizing everything right. He's very athletic in his approach to mixing, and it's inspiring. In some ways I don't want to know what people are doing with their sounds; I want to cling on to music just being magical. But then I have aspirations to want to be in the same league as people I admire, so I start digesting music differently – maybe come up with a few theories, with or without evidence being accessible to me on how a song sounds the way it sounds. But I'm starting to let go of concerns as I'm getting older. I can't be working on other people's music for the rest of my life, banging my head against a wall, wondering why my work doesn't sound like Nigel Godrich. Pretty futile.
Those first Nick Hakim records you did are really special, with a personal vibe.
The reaction we got from those records validated the effort and hard work we put in. It gave me the positive reinforcement I needed to keep on doing this. We all get impostor syndrome, "Am I qualified to be doing this on a day to day basis?" If you put a lot of effort into something and it gets noticed, it puts some gas in the tank. Knowing people are experiencing the music the same way you do is massive. It's important for people to express their vulnerability musically. I carry a lot of self-doubt when I'm working on something. It's important to voice those fears while you are working, and also get grounded in the fact that most of the records we know and love were not easy for those people who made them. They say great art appears effortless, and when I listen to Godrich or Fridmann I'm like, "God damn. These guys have it figured out." But I'll guarantee you that both of them had to drag themselves through the mud to get to that point. It takes a lot of personal courage and belief in yourself to get something to a higher level.
You throw a pretty wide net stylistically, as far as artists and talent, but real authenticity seems to run through all of it.
I can go from deep cuts of not very well-known material to listening to the latest Rihanna song and love them equally. For someone to take pop music so seriously, and not credit it as functioning as a vessel of empowerment for whomever is listening, is a huge mistake. My range might represent wanting to work on music with people whose intentions are pure. It helps if the music has healing properties for its audience.
Listening to the Second Big Thief record [Capacity] is a hugely emotional experience. What would you do or ask ahead of time with new artists that come to you to see if they meet that criteria?
I'm super grateful because I feel like I proved some things to the external world with Capacity, and the band gave me the space to do that. We were all close friends for years before that album was recorded, and I have a lot of pride for what our collective energy can churn out. The way I would weigh a new, prospective gig has to do with the music, but almost more the quality of the person. For the sake of arguing, let's say I'm not into someone's previous work but I meet them and I can tell they are good people and that authenticity could ring through. That's enough criteria. Part of my job is translating and communicating a message to an artist's audience, so it's always possible that the previous translations were poor or rushed. That's part of why it can be so heartbreaking when you meet someone whose music you always loved, and it's like, "Man, that person is a bummer."
How do you listen to music? Do you start and finish an entire album critically?
It's entirely on the artist and producer(s) to make something that's worthy of attention. When I hear people say that the album is dead, my reaction is that artists and producers have to make better albums if we want the audience's attention. I get romantic about the album, and I laugh when someone says people don't listen to albums anymore. As long as music is communicating something, people can stick around to listen.
What advice would you give young, aspiring engineers/producers?
I'd say that if you want something to sound special – and you can't articulate how to do that because you don't know how – that it's a perfect time to go to extremes in your workflow. If you are tinkering with sounds and scratching your head to try and make something sound special, it may be the right time to try fully wet reverb amounts or delay throws that make you want to vomit. Try abusing a compressor, or double the whole song with a version of it an octave down. No one discovers things by looking from afar. Do something different just for yourself and what you may come across is a new sound, or you'll start to feel more and more comfortable with your own exploration. In turn, your confidence receives a boost and your brain leaves you alone. I really do feel like a baby still, and that's mainly because of my mental game. I used to get in my head way too much. Nick would have to assure me everything was going to be great, or Adrianne would call me to make sure I was feeling okay. Those things are a bit ridiculous to expect from other artists you hardly know. It's important, not only within musical expression, but in your life to get as much out of your own way as possible. Provide space for people to be vulnerable, and we all may be impressed by human ingenuity.