I’d met engineer/musician Toshi Kasai and Melvins drummer Dale Crover when they spotted me at a NAMM Show years ago. We had a blast chatting, and while editing the Melvins' interview for this issue I realized I’d better get Toshi’s perspective on his long collaboration with the band and his studio that they share, Sound of Sirens.
You were born in Japan. How did you end up in the U.S. running a studio?
I came here in ‘97 and went to a recording school called Los Angeles Recording Workshop. Now it’s Los Angeles Recording School. I became good friends with their office guys there, and they sent me a bunch of internships at a few studios and smaller record labels. I worked at the school too a little bit as a tutor and then a substitute teacher. That was cool, because I had more pressure to know everything. Then I ended up at a studio called Hook [Sound Studios] for seven years. I met a bunch of bands there.
Hook’s not around anymore?
Yeah, they closed in 2005. We didn’t have Pro Tools, so we lost clients.
You were a house engineer?
House engineer or chief engineer. I was pretty much by myself. There was a voiceover room, but the engineer there didn’t work with me; he did his own thing. I had an assistant later, the last couple of years. I did everything, from producing to being a runner. Hook was a smaller studio, started by Michael Omartian, who’d produced Michael Bolton and Christopher Cross. He built the studio, and then my old boss, Mike Frenchik, took over. I worked with big names and big-time producer/engineers. Hook had an excellent microphone collection.
What techniques did you pick up from other engineers working there?
I was focused on producing techniques more than engineering. I was hugely influenced by Mark Endert; he’d recorded Fiona Apple, Madonna, and Vertical Horizon. He was one of the biggest clients and an amazing engineer. But with producing, I learned a lot. It’s more about people connections than technique. Making the musicians feel comfortable and allowing them to feel freedom during the creative process. It’s, “Hey, this is an idea. Why don’t you try this?” I learned from both sides. Good producers and bad producers. That was an amazing experience at the studios.
To see different people working and producing has got to be invaluable.
Yes. For example, when I worked with Eddie Kramer [Tape Op #24], I was very inspired by not only his recording technique but also his enthusiasm and concentration towards the project. At that time, he was 62 years old, and he was running around the studio to find the best wah pedal for a guitar part on a song.
Meeting the Melvins happened after working with Tool?
Tool came for guitar and bass overdubs. That was a great experience. Then Tool introduced me to the Melvins. That’s how I met those guys, when the Melvins came into the studio. Tool’s guitar player, Adam Jones, I owe him so much. He introduced me to so many bands. Danny Carey [drums], too. Then the Melvins introduced me to thousands of people, including the Big Business guys. I learned the attitude of being a musician. Musicians are some of the most eccentric characters to deal with. In the studio, I learned to pick up on what they want and need to musically express themselves. In those seven years at Hook I gained confidence with this. I think that helped a lot.
Once you worked with the Melvins you guys hit it off. What was it about them and their music and the personalities that works between all you guys?
At that time, they were a three-piece, with Kevin [Rutmanis, bass], Dale [Crover, drums], and Buzz [Osborne, guitar/vocals]. Those guys aren’t afraid to be different. That attitude totally mirrored my idea of making music. The Melvins like the music I enjoy. Working for other mainstream, bigger people, I don’t know how many times I wanted to quit. I was in my late 20s or 30s and I’d have to run for 21-year-old kids. “Why am I doing this?” Then the Melvins showed up and it was like, “This is it!” I didn’t ask them, “Hey, can I keep working?” It happened. Dale and I are pretty close, so we started hanging out. The same thing happened with Tool. Adam lives pretty close to my apartment where I used to live. He invited me over, and then I got to know them.
Successful collaborations in the studio aren’t only focused on the act of recording. There has to be a larger shared interest.
Yeah. That’s true. Some people say, “Don’t work with friends.” I understand that’s something that can happen, especially with money. That’s a thing. I don’t have the mentality to not hang out with a client. I understand that, but it’s not to me. I want to make them a success.
Right. If someone’s coming to you and you like the music and you enjoy them as people, you do want to work a little harder.
Yeah, for sure. Sometimes I don’t want to quit. “This is too good. I want to mix forever.”
What were the years like between quitting Hook and starting up Sound of Sirens studio?
I used commercial studios. We used to go to a studio in Hollywood called Westbeach Recorders. When Hook closed down, Westbeach wanted to buy their console. That’s how I met them. My old roommate used to work at Entourage Studios in North Hollywood. Those are the main two studios I used to use. Westbeach had a Trident; they only had one room, but [were equipped with] decent microphones.
What jobs were coming your way, at that point?
Bands that were influenced by the Melvins. I enjoy producing new bands; to give them a guide. The first period after I became a freelancer was hard, because everybody wanted to be the Melvins. I’m not only into heavy music; I like music that pushes existing boundaries and genre definitions. I recorded a band called Tweak Bird; they have two brothers [Caleb and Ashton Bird] with strong vocals. People started getting that my forte is not only heavy, but weird and harmonized pop. For the last 12 years I’ve been fortunate. My studio has such a high demand that they come to me from all over the world, like Poland, Italy, and Germany. I have also traveled to other countries to produce, such as Australia, Mexico, and Canada.
What year did you guys put together Sound of Sirens studio?
I found it by myself almost eight years ago. It was just one warehouse. A year later, the Melvins decided to move in. Buzz said, “I’m going to record with you anyway. Can we share?” That’s how we started, and he helped finance making the walls and more.
How does that work, as far as sharing time?
Buzz is easy, man. Buzz is always ahead. At least six months before, he’s going to start talking about it, “Hey, I want to record next winter.” So, I won’t book anything around then. The only thing is that rehearsal time; we have to schedule a little bit. During the summer they’re gone and I don’t need to worry about a schedule conflict. Buzz has never told me, “Hey, book us next week.” If I book something, he says, “Okay, we’ve gotta wait.” It’s been really good. They leave their gear. They’ll leave drums, and Dale doesn’t care if I’m using them. Change the heads and make sure a rough drummer’s not going to play.
Don’t break em’.
Yeah, don’t break! There are some off-limit instruments, but usually it’s fine.
The studio’s based around tracking into digital, right?
Yeah, there’s no room for the tape. It’s a tiny studio. I wish. Someday.
Do you have a console?
The console is a Yamaha PM-1000.
Oh, right! That’s the legendary “they looked at the Neve and tried to copy it” console.
My friend, Avedis [Kifedjian Tape Op #132], looked up the schematics, and he said, “Oh, this is good.” I trust him; he used to fix our gear at Hook, and I have his mic pres. Those are sweet. He told me what to buy and what to not buy. “This is not right. This is a copy.” Being in L.A. is amazing to me; to get the connections.
Was it a lot of work to build up a mic collection?
Absolutely. After working at Hook and handling mics like a Telefunken [ELA M] 251, as well as the Neumann U 47 and M 49, building my own collection was slow. I’m always looking for the perfect sound. I have many dream microphones!
You have a wish list?
Oh, yeah; totally. Then mics I mentioned from Hook, because I got to experience the quality. Also, the Sony C-800G and the Neumann U 67.
Well, you have enough to get the work done.
Oh, yes. The guys from Heil Microphones have been nice to me [Bob Heil, Tape Op #67]. They’re great microphones. Then we used to have a connection to Shure, so I have a few good Shure mics too. The ribbon mics – the red one, the KSM313 – are amazing microphones.
What is your room like there? The drum sounds have a nice ambience in your recordings.
The ceiling is high. I put the two room mics really high. It’s not super dead. It’s a warehouse, so if you take the material off the walls it’s pretty live.
Is it an open space? Do you have a control room?
I do have a control room. Before the Melvins I didn’t for a year and a half, and then I built one because I didn’t want to wear headphones. My ears get tired.
I agree. Where did the studio’s name come from?
When I became freelance, I’d go to a big studio and sometimes we didn’t finish, so we’d overdub at the Melvins’ rehearsal studio. Every time I tried to record sirens came by, so I was joking, “Listen to the sound of the sirens.” That’s how we named the studio. I don’t hear sirens here…
I know from the interview with the Melvins that there’s a cubbyhole area where you have a bass amp and a guitar cabinet for isolation.
That’s the very first thing I built, a box so I don’t need to hear the guitar sound too loud. Then we made the control room.
Does work find you via email?
I have a website. Usually it’s friends of friends and word of mouth. From time to time, I get it through email.
People see your name on albums?
Yeah. It takes three or four years to recognize, like, “Hey, I heard the album.” That was a long time ago! But I won’t complain. I have to do Instagram and that kind of thing to say, “I worked on this and produced it.” Self-promoting.
Our careers get work by association. With Tool, the Melvins, and bands like that, people are very curious about who they’ve worked with.
True. I have been fortunate with clients coming from those sources.
I listened through your catalog and could hear certain aesthetic decisions, such as stereo guitars and very defined drums, yet with depth and room.
Thank you! That’s what I’m focused on. Somebody recognizes it. I want to feel like the audience feels like when watching Stanley Kubrick movies. You can feel space.
Depth of field?
Yeah. I’m not using a drum machine. Sometimes I hate a heavy guitar because it takes up so much space. It’s a constant fight. I love and hate it.
Do you think a way for making space is doubling guitar and panning left and right to keep the center open for vocals, kick, and snare?
That too, but it all depends on the music and songs. I can end up really spacey. I always like when I go left side and then go right side and it sounds so different; it’s an amazing ear candy or illusion. I always want to entertain with my engineering somehow. I like the drums in one side sometimes too; a ‘60s mix. But usually I end up with, “Oh, this is the most balanced and cool.”
You played live with the Melvins and Big Business. When we step in as a musician, I feel we bring that back to producing and engineering other people. I think it’s healthy.
Yeah! You can see the other side too, of what musicians think. I’ve worked a lot with the guy from Helmet, Page Hamilton. He always said, “You have a music background, so it’s easy to work with you.” I didn’t think about that. Some engineers just do engineering. Some producers just do producing. Musicians are some of the most creative people to work with. Being technical is one thing, but to me it’s more about communication.
Everybody’s at a vulnerable point. We have to figure out how to best proceed.
Yeah, sometimes it’s still happening. A new band comes in, and I’ll say, “Why don’t you punch in?” “What do you mean, you don’t like it?” “No, I love it, but you can do better! You can execute better. That’s a great idea!” Some people are super insecure. You’ve gotta be careful. The Melvins guys are confident. “Hey, do it again.” “Okay, let’s do it.”
In their interview they say they know how to read you and what it means when you say, “Mmm, it was okay.” Then they say, “Okay, do it again. Right?”
Yeah, that’s funny. They always say that. It’s true, that means, “No!”