Upstate New York is an odd place, with its mix of old Dutch Farmers, economically depressed towns, and a slew of aging hippies. This is especially true in the town of Woodstock, nestled in the Catskill Mountains; a quaint country town two hours north of New York City, with under six thousand residents and no traffic lights. I spent my pivotal years in Woodstock, and I've always had a love/hate relationship with the struggle and balance between the touristy rural Americana and ‘60s nostalgia. The multidimensional blend of creativity and salt of the earth people has always been in flux since the town's early history. A ton of musicians and studios have tucked themselves away as a refuge from the overcrowded rat race of New York City. It's also where Daniel James Goodwin decided to create his own music-making retreat. I sat down with Daniel in his studio, The Isokon, to talk about the environmental impact of working to tape, working with artists such as Bob Weir, Kaki King, Heather Woods Broderick, and working with ECM Records, as well as his life and what he says, "F*ck you" to.
How did you end up here?
I grew up upstate, and then met Paul Antonell at the Clubhouse Recording Studios when they were in Germantown. I started assisting there. I was always the guy in the band with the 4-track in my dad's basement. I did a Murder by Death record [Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?] and thought, "Well, I guess I'm good at this, so I'll keep doing it." This is all I've ever done for my life.
So, Clubhouse and then...
My ex-wife and I bought a house outside of Woodstock, and I built a mixing room in there. I started mixing [there], but tracking at the Clubhouse, Brooklyn Recording, or wherever. After a couple years of that, I decided that I wanted to have a place to track and mix. I found this place in 2010. I hated the feeling of being in a proper studio. That's why I wanted to find a house and make it a studio.
How do you usually track in here?
It depends. For instance, Kevin Morby's last record [Oh My God], we tracked mostly live – drums, bass, guitar, and Kevin's vocals live in the room. Trying to track 80% live is the way I like to roll, and then adorn it as necessary. But if I ever need to isolate somebody, I throw them in one of the other rooms. I did a record [Invitation] with Heather Woods Broderick. Heather would be on piano with vocals, the drums behind her, and then the other instruments isolated when necessary.
She came in with most of the song structured?
My input as a producer on that record was the adornment of it – like a film director, basically. I want her to write the script, but I'll direct it. It's a really brilliant record. I played a bunch of pedal steel, guitar, and keyboards.
I love pedal steel on anything.
Me too. I got that pedal steel from Kaki King, actually. I produced and recorded Glow and the record after that, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, which she did a touring show with – with projections on the guitar. We did some work on the Everybody Glows: B-Sides & Rarities record in between those two.
How did you go about mic'ing her?
I had a core setup, which might have been two [Neumann U] 87s out front of her and then a mono Lomo [Russian-made mic] somewhere. Sometimes there was a contact mic in the guitar, a contact mic on her chest, or even behind-the-ear mics. We ran amps on a ton of sounds. She brought huge suitcases with shakers; we spent three days doing shakers. She's masterful at it.
Are you a big fan of those Lomo mics?
I'll use a Lomo 19A13 a lot of times on acoustic guitar, which is a somewhat rare mic. The 19A19 would also get used. I use them on everything. My mother's family is Russian, so I think I had some strange desire to feel connected to the homeland. I ended up buying Lomo mics back in the ‘90s because they were really inexpensive. I loved the way they sound. And now I love them even more than anything else. I also have my huge Lenin and Marx library in the back here!
You can get into political and ethical debates when it comes down to recording?
I used to consider myself pretty far left on most days, but there are some things where my main goal is to know the truth of the matter. I think being in this world for so long, you start to understand personality archetypes. If the band is sitting here with me, I know that they all fill whatever niche that is. I always find that there's one person who's kind of the class clown. Everybody subconsciously in the room looks to that person to help in hard situations. If they're trying to work out a song, that person's always there to make sure everything's still okay. I think it's instinctual. But there's a place in which I think I can hear, or tell, within a performance if it's still progressing. I'm not a precious guy in terms of, "You're the singer. I can only do three takes." But I'm also not a militaristic guy in that way. I try to balance the two. A lot of conversation happens in the records that I do. One thing I miss about tape is rewind time; you'd have a quick 3-minute conversation, and then you'd get back to it. I'm a full take kind of guy, singer is full takes, guitar player is full takes. It's fun to run a full pass, talk for a bit, then run another. The best people are pretty much "on demand" at that point, when the comfort level is high.
So, for the analog versus digital cliché question, you appreciate the rewind time of the tape?
I was a tape purist until 2006. One time I couldn't get tape and I had to do a record. The first playback I thought, "Wait a minute. Everything sounds exactly how it sounded going in. That's weird." I had to readjust my methodology, because I was always used to the moving target of tape and working within that, which I appreciate on some level. But when I heard the digital come back the same way I put it in, I realized that I can make a record sound however I want it to sound. I didn't need to align the machine every day. Everything about the analog process is really inefficient and bad for the environment. It reflected a pragmatic, viable, touchable "thing," whereas digital is not. I can understand the nostalgic relationship, but it has no functional use for me anymore, aside from tape echo. Moving a microphone makes more difference than tape does. Everything I've done since 2007 has been digital.
Do you think people are coming to you to say, "Hey, I want to do this album differently"? The Donna Lewis album [Brand New Day] was well outside of what she was known for.
I guess myself, David [Torn, Tape Op #49], and Donna had the impetus to be contrarians.
Can you talk about the band and what you use on her vocals?
We decided the Telefunken ELA M 251 was the one to use on her, because she has a lot of breath in her voice. It was a crispy, visceral sound. Dave King would play drums in front of her, off to the side. I wanted that "Columbia 30th Street Studios" vibe, where the drums were "over here" but you hear the reflections making it wider. The drums were ostensibly in mono for the most part, but cantered to one side. It was all about using the reflections of all the leakage in ways that made the stereo image feel "right." Piano would've been tilted more to the right, and that had drums in it. Donna's vocal mic had more of the bottom end of the drums because of how it was positioned. The bass was cantered off to the left with the drums; they sat in their same location. The reflections ended up making it sound wider than we had placed it.
You and my dad [David Torn] did a shootout with the EMT plate reverb between the Universal Audio UAD plug-in on her vocals and the real EMT plate here. You both went with the UAD.
You go with what works. If I ever had to recall a mix back when it was fully analog, it would piss me off because nothing sounded the same. With the UAD, I'll open it up three years from now and it's going to sound identical to how it sounded then, and that's important. One of the first jobs I did as an engineer was remastering a bunch of old prog rock records. We couldn't get the master tapes to play on some of them, even after baking them. I would have to take a first-generation vinyl pressing, pull that into digital land, and take out all the pops and clicks.
If somebody bumps a mic for you, you don't have to redo...
I know what to do. I use [iZotope RX] Spectral Repair all the time, which is amazing. I did a record [Clare Bowen] with [producer] Josh Kaufman last year for a singer named Clare Bowen. She's on that show, Nashville. There was one track where she did a scratch vocal, and then she got really sick that same day. It was a brilliant vocal, but it had click track bleed throughout. In the old days, you would basically have to mute the vocal. But she had her headphones so loud that I couldn't really do that. I had to go into Spectral Repair and pull out every click on the song, but it worked. Half an hour later we had a totally usable, perfectly keepable take.
How did Bob [Weir] end up working with you?
Josh Kaufman and I have been working on records for several years together. Josh had this idea that he and Bob talked about, about doing a cowboy record [Blue Mountain]. Josh produced and I engineered and mixed it. We decided to do the first sessions here. And then we did a couple at Applehead [Recording & Production], Dreamland [Recording], and Clubhouse. I had never worked at Applehead until then, and it was great. It's woody, warm, and has really tall ceilings. I like the desk there.
What's your desk here?
I love this desk. It's an early ‘70s MCI JH-400, and it's all discrete. MCI gets a bad rap because it's not a Neve, an API, or an SSL. I prefer it to all those, honestly. I have all my shit here; my reverbs, my echoes, and all my pedals. If I'm doing a record here and have access to all my gear; if we have the sound it gets printed.
We haven't even talked about your projects yet. How was Snowflake born?
I was going through a divorce and grappling with changes. I've never really been an autobiographical writer. But I remember the day; I had finished a record, but I still had drum mics set up. I started playing the piano and writing a song. It took a year, but that whole year I was working on the record [We All Grow Toward the Sea]. I put a band together to play it live. We recently tracked a new record, which is basically done. It's about an astronaut who leaves on his last mission, but the machine fails and he's left in space. It's his love letter to his long-lost wife, from space.
You're in a space machine here, with all the knobs and meters. Do you feel detached?
You make the choice. Sometimes I'd go that way and not home. I made that decision and it definitely had an impact. It's a lucky person to find somebody who can deal with what they have to endure with somebody like us. I'm at a different place in my career; I can take three months off a year. I couldn't do that when I was in my 20s. But to get to this place it takes working 16 hours a day for ten years straight to do it. Now, I've got two mixes to do and then I've got nothing to do until next week. But that's great.
The pay-your-dues aspect of this business; one of those dues is relationships. It's brutal.
When you're younger you look at it as unfair. Some people are meant to do this, some people aren't, and some people aren't good at it. It's ultimately the nature of the universe; to gain something you need to lose something else. There's only so much space. I don't want somebody to listen to my records and think, "Oh, he's doing the same thing with all these artists." But I like having a sound; I definitely do, and I embrace it.
You have a sound, but it's not overpowering.
I definitely do have a specific view of drum sounds. I don't do stereo overheads. It's usually a mono Lomo tube mic up top. Always a large diaphragm condenser on the snare drum. If I need tom mics, it'll be the [Sennheiser MD]421s. I run [sounds] into the Bogner Wessex [overdrive] pedal a lot for drums. I have the Lomo 19A19 coming in above the kick and the snare. Bring that fader up, listen to it, and then everything else comes after it.
You know where to position drums to get the stereo spread rather than doing the overheads?
I would rather it was more like [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue, where you can hear the walls of the room. I find that interesting.
You can picture the band in that space?
Even if that space is amorphous. There are tracks on [Pink Floyd's] The Dark Side of the Moon where the drums seem to be coming from this ever-moving, shifting space. I appreciate that too, as long as it puts me somewhere.
I'm a small amp guy, for sure. I'm a big condenser mic fan. I learned that from Neil Dorfsman and John Holbrook; both were big mentors of mine, and both used condensers on guitar amps. I always like to have that picture, and then modify that with a weirdo thing. I have a couple of mics that do weird shit. To manipulate that against the main picture is really interesting.
And on bass, you said you preferred DI?
I DI, usually. I have these old Scully tape machine preamps that sound fucking fabulous on bass.
What are unattended mixing sessions like for you?
It's an interesting process, because I can do what I want for a few days and only send tracks when I'm comfortable. I can work for three hours on a mix and be like, "I'm not in the place where I'm feeling the decisions I make are serving anything." That was never possible in the old days. It's massively important for an artist, especially if they're used to hearing it a certain way for however long they've been working on a record. This other person is mixing it, and out of nowhere they get this Dropbox link. Their initial reaction – especially with my work – might be, "Oh, shit, I'm not used to this." They have to live with it for a few days. I think that's a better way to judge work than the old days, where you're in the room at the same time. I mean, I like hanging out. I could've had somebody else mix the Snowflake record, for a different perspective, but for control reasons I never would've done it.
Do you nerd out about other producers and mixers?
I nerd out more about film than I do records and producers. But certainly, The Dark Side of the Moon, Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis, and Talk Talk's Laughing Stock – those three records are the gold standard for me. Every decision I make comes from one of those places. Film does the same thing for me. The [Stanley] Kubrick-ian thing influences my music, for sure. Also [Andrei] Tarkovsky; the pacing, the thoughtfulness, and the rumination of it appeals to me. Producer-wise, Rudy Van Gelder [Tape Op #43] had a big influence on me, and definitely Alan Parsons [#42]. And Phill Brown [#12, Are We Still Rolling?] was a huge one for me, because he did the Talk Talk records [Laughing Stock, Spirit of Eden]. He also did that Beth Gibbons & Rustin' Man record [Out of Season], which is brilliant. Tchad Blake [#16, #133] was a big one as well. As I mentioned earlier, two people that meant a lot to me were John Holbrook and Neil Dorfsman. They were big mentors of mine that I worked with, and they've both had an indelible influence on me forever.
Was it being in the studio with those guys and seeing how they work?
The sounds that they got had a huge impact on me. Without them, my process would be very, very different, and I don't know if it would be for the better.
What would you suggest to the next generation that wants to do this?
I would do it the same way: Work my ass off and put myself in the most uncomfortable positions possible, at the youngest age possible, so I got to learn quickly. Make coffee, clean toilets, and run the food – that shit is invaluable. I wouldn't change a thing about how I started in this world, because I learned quickly. That proved to me that I liked it, and that I wanted to be doing what I was doing, because if I didn't, I would've left. It also provides a basis for the little things that are taken for granted. I've had assistants in other studios where if I asked them to wrap a mic cable, they'd get indignant about it. I always think, "You're ready to make records now?" If you don't like what you do, you're not going to endure the hardship. Put yourself into the hardship right away, and if you get through it, then great. You've got all that behind you.
What are some other artists or bands you'd like to record or produce?
If I love the artist I don't need to work with them. I love Björk. I think she's incredible. I never want to work with her, because I want to keep that perspective. I would love to keep making records with Tim [Berne]. ECM Records, as an idea, is compelling to me and speaks to all that curated experience that I have as an artist. Manfred [Eicher, ECM's founder] wrote a message to me once expressing that I was one of the few outside engineers that he was a fan of. He's an icon to me. To continue working on ECM Records would be a great honor, for sure. It's art.
Your studio's named The Isokon. Why?
These Jewish Bauhaus architects in Germany in the late ‘30s decided to get the fuck out. They went to London and lived at this building – they called it the "Isokon Flats" because it was short for isometric construction. It was a Bohemian condominium, and it represented equal part socialism and idiosyncratic libertarianism a "fuck you" to the state of Germany. All the contrarian things that compel me are encapsulated in that name, and so I coopted it.
What's your "fuck you" towards, then?
I guess the "fuck you" is towards the studio world. This is a house in the middle of the woods and built by my own hands, not some posh studio that was designed by some high-end designer. Anything to subvert the machine! [laughter] I'm happy with making the decision to build my studio up here and not be in Brooklyn for 20 years. It was a huge question mark. I work on great music. I make a living. It took 20 plus years of work, but I'm here.