This story begins many years ago, in Portland, Oregon. It was 1996, and the first issue of Tape Op had just been released. In a quest to learn more, I had been devouring as many books and magazines about recording as I could get my hands on. I was spending my days in the Multnomah County Library, and I had been regularly dropping by Powell's Books to scour their shelves. One day I was browsing, looking at the same recording books that had been there for months. Usually there was no one in this part of the store, but that particular day, another guy was also looking closely at the same books. "There's nothing new here," he told me, with a bit of a laugh. I nervously told this stranger about my new magazine, and that he could pick it up at Reading Frenzy, an underground 'zine and comic book shop nearby. "I walked straight down and bought it. I remember calling you the next day," Craig told me later.
As we talked, it became obvious that we were on similar paths. My basement studio (Laundry Rules) was moving into a commercial space, becoming Jackpot! Recording Studio, and Craig had taken over part of the house he was living in, with a Neotek console and a 3M 16-track, 2-inch tape deck. We were both recording bands in our area – Craig was just across the river in Vancouver, Washington – and eventually we would even work together on a few projects. Craig was also wheeling and dealing used gear, and it was always a treat when he dropped off a rack of vintage Urei 1176s or some exquisite Sony C-37A mics for me to learn about and borrow for a bit.
Craig now lives in Nashville, and along the way he has worked on records by Hanson, Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town, Vanessa Carlton, Amy Grant, The Features, Gungor, Colourmusic, and many others. He has a personal studio in East Nashville, with an amazing view.
Of all the interviews I've ever done for Tape Op, this is one of the most personal and meaningful to me. Craig and I have continued our journey into the world of recording like brothers, and his endless help during the early years of Jackpot! was invaluable. In following his selfless actions, he taught me how to extend my help and knowledge to others. I check in with him on every visit to Nashville, and though we are older – now with decades of experience between us – we still confer on gear choices, share candid studio experiences, talk about life, and put back a few microbrews.
When I first met you, you had that 16-track 3M M79 tape deck at your home.
I lived on top of a mountain – the highest residence in the county. It was the end of the pavement, and after that it was only logging roads. There was no traffic up there, and it was the quietest place I've ever lived. We never had to worry about anyone hearing us, and we didn't have to worry about noise coming in. I ran a snake out of the bedroom window and into the detached one-car garage and set up bands in the garage. You and I started at an interesting time. There was all this old technology that was on its way out and dropping in value. Then we had all this new technology coming in, like [Alesis] ADATs and [Tascam] DA-88s. Everyone wanted a Sony DASH [digital tape deck] machine – they thought that to be a professional recording studio they had to have that. You and I were able to experience this older gear and buy them for pennies on the dollar. The great thing is that I think it taught us to use our ears.
Yeah, and our screwdrivers and soldering irons! [laughter]
I think the point I'm making is even a little deeper than that. There was all this gear that people didn't even know the name of. I bought my Gates Sta-Level [compressor] for $50. I was told that people in Nashville use tube compressors. I was into guitar tube amps, and I was naive at the time. You can't find one for $50 now, especially an original from 1957. It sounds gorgeous and I use it every day. At the time, I judged it with my ears. In a silly way, you have to listen with more than your ears. You have to listen to your heart and ask, "Does this thing convey any emotion or feeling?" If it does, then you use it. We went through so much gear! I did a lot of records on ADAT that I still think sound pretty good. It comes down to the person, and the way that they think about music. I'm much more interested in arrangements, tone, and texture.
What do you think drew you to recording back then?
I had played in bands and was a music theory major in college. I had always performed music, but once I started recording, I kind of quit playing. To me, it was almost like I'd found my instrument. I really enjoyed playing, and I was a decent player, but I wasn't great. But once I started doing this, I got completely absorbed. I still am.
Who were some of your early clients?
I was in college, and the people who were in my group of friends were also musicians. They introduced me to other musicians. We were recording for fun, really. I had a little success with some early recordings. I've gone back and listened to some of them, and they're not that bad!
If you're careful enough when first starting out, you hopefully don't make big mistakes.
I didn't have enough gear to make mistakes with! Once I found recording, I became a very bad student. It was at that time I remember going down to Powell's and meeting you.
I think what kept us friends for so long is that we're not in competition. We've helped each other over the years. I remember calling and saying, "My tape deck's broken. Help me!"
I'll never forget the 4th of July when you had Pavement [Tape Op #15] at the studio and the tape deck was broken. I was at the park with my family. I was like, "Don't worry. I'll be right there."
I still owe you! What led to you and your family leaving the Portland area and moving to Oklahoma?
You remember back in the early days of the internet, we had rec.audio.pro. It was a list. I didn't have a computer, so I would go over to my brother's house. I met so many people on that list who I'm still friends with. I met Tony SanFilippo because we both had 3M machines. I met a lot of other people, but I met a guy in Oklahoma City who was building a studio. He had all these questions about how to lay out the control room. Evidently, he was really serious about building this place, so I started giving him suggestions. "Here's where you should set up your monitors. Here's where you should put your screen for Pro Tools." We talked a lot. Through all that, he said, "Man, you've helped me so much. Come down to Oklahoma City and do a session here." Back then, in Portland, I was mixing a lot, but the odd thing was that I had to book three to six months of studio time in a row to mix all the records I was working on. The studio owners would be mad at me for this. Most studios now would dream of having a client who was going to book over 300 days per year. But at the time, they all resented me for it. For the most part, the guys who were running the studios wanted to be doing my job. Rather than look at me as a good client, I think they looked at me as being a nuisance because they couldn't be in there doing what they wanted; or they had to tell other people, "No, Craig has the place." I never understood that. I had to start traveling all over the country to mix records, and that meant I was out of town seven to nine months out of the year.
I remember that era.
Yeah. I'd be in Nashville or Chicago. There was a band that wanted to mix, but we couldn't get studio time in Portland. I called up the guy in Oklahoma and asked if I could come down and mix the record. He said, "Yeah, come on down." I really liked the place. He had it set up so that I could get the mixing done, but then I would stay for a while afterwards; he had sessions booked he needed an engineer for. That was great. I went home, and then the next thing I knew I had another record to mix. I went down, and he would have me come in early and do a bunch of sessions for him. At the time, it was hard to find an engineer in Oklahoma City who knew how to handle a big studio like that: one who was well-versed in the consoles and different systems, and knew how to run a session. There were about two years where I was constantly flying back and forth from Portland to Oklahoma. Eventually it started to wear on me and my family, so we moved to Oklahoma. I think we had the studio booked 320 days a year, which is insane. Being that it was built on top of the home where the guy lived, I think it got to be a bit much for him.
The proximity of a studio to your home can be overwhelming.
Yeah. Then I realized one day that it probably wasn't going to work out. I looked around to try to find a place for myself to land there, and found I really couldn't. There were a couple of producers here in Nashville who I was working with, and they both said they wanted me to be here. One of them actually offered to put up money for the console, and he found my first studio space for me.
Who was this producer?
His name is Neil DeGraide. He and I are still close friends. He's out in Louisville. He has got his own studio up there, and, in the process of all this, he's become a very good mixer himself. So, he doesn't really need me as much anymore.
You engineered Kacey Musgraves' Golden Hour record a couple of years ago and even mixed some of it?
Along with Shawn Everett [Tape Op #115] and Serban Ghenea. I really wanted to mix more of the record than I did, but that's not how music works. Getting someone really good involved to help do your job does not make you look bad; it only makes you look better. I got to work on a record with Serban, who's been one of my mixing heroes for a long time. Shawn Everett, too. Both are guys I look up to, and whose work I enjoy. To have my name appear next to theirs; how is that not going to work out for me?
Did you take a try at mixing all the songs on the album?
Yeah, I mixed the whole record. My versions were to go show the label. They were certainly not rough mixes, like end of the night on the board. They were like, "We're going to sit down and really make sure they get an idea of what this record's all about." When I listen now, what Shawn and I did is still fairly similar. He mixed most of it. What Serban did was fairly similar as well. We had some different tastes, like what delay to use. The biggest thing between Shawn's versions of the mixes and mine is that I think mine sounded more '70s, like Fleetwood Mac. He was a lot more aggressive with mix processing than I would have been, but I like how it sounds.
It sounds cohesive.
That's because I engineered the whole thing. We did not have a big crew. Ian [Fitchuk], Daniel [Tashian], Todd [Lombardo], and Kacey were the main people playing on the record, except for strings or steel guitar.
It's the way we always used to make records way back!
Yes. You threw people in who were good enough to handle almost anything, and then you'd all go in and make a record. I think the songs, for the most part, were written. [Co-producers] Daniel and Ian did write with Kacey on most of the songs, but then there are some other songs they didn't write on at all. What we spent most of our time doing was trying ideas out and then throwing them away. We would spend a half hour on a piano line, and everyone would go, "That's great!" Then we'd say, "Okay, let's put that away. It's not right yet." I work on a lot of sessions where there will be nine guys on the floor. We play the song three, maybe four times, and then that's the song. The producer will go in and take parts out that maybe don't need to be there, or perhaps add an overdub or two. They usually go back and redo the vocal, but for the most part, that's it. This was a lot more where we would focus on a part; but it had to work, feel right, make sense, and not be distracting. However, it also had to have enough character to feel like it belonged.
It's darker feeling album.
You'll notice that there's not a lot of cymbals on that record, but it's not that it's actually dark. We didn't do a lot with tambourine, ride cymbals, or even hi-hat. Hi-hats are very subdued. Not that we didn't try, but every time we did, it felt like it wasn't right and got vetoed for that reason. Sometimes cymbals can be a way to cheat, to feel like, "Oh, we went to the bridge," and now suddenly we're on the ride cymbal because it needed a lift. That's one way to do it – it's probably the least interesting way to do it. When you don't do that, and you're forced to instead write a part that's more interesting, that is a better way of doing it. That's something that I think everyone working on the record understood. It could be as simple as adding a couple of notes to a fingerpicked acoustic part, or changing voicing on the keys, to give it a lift.
There's a search for something else.
I think the interesting thing about it is that nobody set out to do it. We didn't say, "Here's the rule we'll live by." We found that rule emerged on its own, because, as we tried many parts, we noticed some tended to work and others didn't. We definitely didn't want to take away from her voice, because it's beautiful. You want to hear it. I think some of that is the sensibilities that Ian and Daniel have, because of the type of musicians they are. Ian definitely likes those kinds of Fleetwood Mac-style sounds. We all gravitated that way. I don't think Kacey knew a whole lot about '70s pop music going into it. I think she knew what she liked. When she was hearing something she liked, she would let us do it and we'd keep going. In the end, I'm super proud of that record. I think everybody did a great job.
What were you doing immediately after that, work-wise?
I'll tell you a funny story. I've been working with the pop band Hanson for over 15 years. Kacey's record came out in April 2018. Hanson's studio [in Tulsa, Oklahoma,] is down a little alleyway, and at the end is a record store. Across from that is a bar. I went into the record store, bought the record, and went over to the bar and got a cocktail. It was late, and my hotel was across the street. The guys behind the bar were really excited. They were saying, "Yeah, we're going to close in half an hour, and we've got the new Kacey Musgraves record. We're going to put it on and listen once all the customers leave." I decided to tell them, "Cool! I made that record." They looked at me and did not believe me. A half hour later when the bar closed, they kicked me out, sat down, and listened to the record. They thought I was some crazy guy at the bar! [laughter]
I've felt that way many times! It seemed some of the early years in Nashville were harder.
They always say Nashville is a "ten year town." The funny thing is that I'd decided I was going to leave Nashville, and it was right exactly at the ten year mark that I got called to work on Kacey's record. I think it was at the CMAs [Country Music Awards] that Kacey said she realized the day she won Album of the Year was ten years to the day when she'd moved to Nashville! Early on, I had a lot of success out here working. A lot of people knew my work and liked me. I certainly did work on some very good sounding records with people, and some that sold very well.
What music was that?
It was a lot of CCM [Contemporary Christian Music]. Those guys figured out who I was, that I was dirt cheap, and that I would work hard. I got hired to mix a lot of that. I didn't track any records; I never touched a microphone for the first six years I was in town!
The way we grew up was not like that at all. We were always tracking and mixing.
Yeah, I had always been the guy who could do both. The mix engineers who I knew, they all really liked my tracks and thought I was turning in much better quality work than a lot of other people they worked with. I knew how to track; it was just that nobody in Nashville would hire me to do it. It really wasn't until producer Marshall Altman started hiring me to track records that I got in that rotation.
You've told me before that you think there are mythologies about gear and the mix process.
I think we all have these ideas about consoles, tape machines, and tubes. We think that they have a magical quality to them. We tend to believe in these mythologies that we've built up around them, as well as the history. We really do believe them. It's really no different than religion. You have faith that these are better.
But maybe you don't test it?
Yeah; we're not scientific about it. Years ago, my console broke, and I had to finish a project. I went back and listened to the rough bounces, which had been sent to me by the producer. He said, "There's something charming about the roughs you did on the day of tracking." I listened to them, and he was right. The difference between the in-the-box mix and the console mix was not huge, but there was something more engaging about the in-the-box mix, in that instance. I got my console fixed, and while I was working on it, I had a couple of other projects that I was mixing. I started those mixes in the box and printed versions of those. Then I went back to the console, and the console mix was much better. What I think was happening is, first of all, any time I do a mix and go back to it, I can beat it. This is a mix technique I use: I mix the song and get it to a point where I think it's really good, and then I print it and put it away. I come back to it the next day and I instantly find a dozen things that can be better. I can keep doing that for quite a while, until I finally get to a point where it's exhausted. But certainly, I can always beat my first, second, third, or fourth try.
Do you think there's a point where it starts to get worse?
It does, yeah. If you have someone who's indecisive, or who's operating with a mindset of fear, that's very easy to do. There are people who are prone to that. They get worried that their friends won't like it, or maybe the label won't like it, or maybe the fans won't understand it. If I look back on the times I've done mixes that I think are very good, ones I'm very proud of, the client was always pushing me, rather than the other way around. They were pushing me to make it better. There are certain producers and artists I work with where it seems like no matter how hard I try to be crazy, it's never crazy enough. I've never pushed it far enough. They always make me a better mixer.
What percentage of your work is mixing, at this point?
It's still the more profitable side, for sure. I'm not mixing full time, like I was for years after I moved here. I really want to be doing more tracking, because I'm having so much fun getting back in the studio and being with the musicians. I have a new Hanson record coming up, and I'm super excited to get back out with them. They're great musicians, and great guys.
We've had a lot of conversations about studio "fear." That's the worst thing when making a record.
Fear is the number one killer of good music, and good art in general. You need to do something that's honest and brave. Honesty and bravery are pretty much the opposite of fear, especially in art. It's important to let people know that I'm willing to try anything. There are any number of ways that I can make music sound great that will represent them in their writing and performances. It's their recording, so if they really hate something, great! I'll throw it away. If I'm not pushing buttons and causing them to react emotionally, whether that's positively or negatively, then I'm really not doing my job. A perfectly boring mix that's balanced and excellent in every way? No one's going to want to listen to that.