I’ve known Beau Sorenson for close to ten years now, and around two years ago I met his wife, Maryam Qudus. They are recording engineers and producers, and both create their own music. They work out of Tiny Telephone Recording (often referred to as Tiny), and Tiny’s owner, John Vanderslice (often referred to as JV) [Tape Op #10], and Chris Walla (formerly of Death Cab for Cutie) [#19, #111] figure prominently in their careers. I’ve gotten to know each of them better in the past two years, as they’ve been doing occasional sessions out of my Panoramic House Studio. I always enjoy seeing them, as they each exude a very positive and friendly vibe. Even though the pandemic has limited in-person interactions, we recently had a chance to share a dinner at Panoramic with artist Leah Dunn, her cousin Juno Hassid, and my friend Suzanne Ciani, who I had long wanted Beau and Maryam to meet as they’re all Buchla synthesizer users. After getting to know everyone better over dinner, we spent the next few days chatting for Tape Op. -JB
A Person Who Likes to be in Studios and Help People Make Music
You started out in Madison, Wisconsin, at Smart Studios [Tape Op #11], but you’d gone to a recording school?
Yeah. I’m going to step back a little bit. I grew up in northwestern Wisconsin, in a very small town called Springbrook, and there wasn’t much to do. When I was in high school, music was a big part of my life, both playing in garage bands and in school: jazz band and concert band. I was doing some recording in my bedroom at home. I never thought of music as a possible career path. I had moved to Madison, and I was working at a hardware store. I was recording my own music at home, and I wanted to understand how to do some of it better. There were big gaps in my knowledge – because I was recording mostly direct, I didn’t even understand what phantom power was! I went to this small, two-year community college called Madison Media Institute that had an Associate of Arts degree in recording. I went there without any intent of becoming an engineer and producer; I just wanted to understand what I was doing and get better at it. While I was there, I realized how much I enjoyed these overlapping sensibilities of music, technology, and problem-solving. As I was getting out of school, I was trying to find an internship. I had a possibility of an internship at a studio in Los Angeles – that was probably going to be a lousy experience, and it felt like one of those places that grinds through interns. But it was my only opportunity. I was two weeks away from moving to Los Angeles to work at that studio when Mike Zirkel, the manager and chief engineer at Smart, called me and asked, “Would you be interested in interviewing for an internship here?” An instructor of mine, Doug Olson, had worked at Smart on a lot of records. We connected over a shared love for Television’s Marquee Moon. Apparently, Doug had told Mike to call me, so I went and interviewed. It was supposed to be a 15-minute interview, but Mike and I ended up talking for three hours, going into tangents about [The Beach Boys’] Pet Sounds box set. It was clear, very quickly, that I was going intern there. I cancelled my moving plans, stayed in Madison, and started working at Smart as an intern. I was there for about five years, until it closed.
That was where you met Chris Walla, working on one of the Death Cab records?
Yeah. I met Chris on Plans, which was mostly because they had tracked Plans at Long View Farm [Studios]. Long View had a pretty rare Trident A Range console, which Smart famously had as well. At that point, Chris wasn’t excited about any of the studios in Seattle for mixing. He wanted to mix it somewhere else. He stopped by to tour Smart and quickly fell in with the whole vibe and ethos of the place and ended up coming back to mix the record there. That’s how we became friends.
When you say “the vibe and ethos,” did that studio have a distinct community about it? How involved was Butch Vig at this point?
It definitely had a sense of community and history. Butch wasn’t as involved on a day-to-day level by the time I started; Mike was running the studio day to day. However, at that moment, they were finishing up a Garbage record [Bleed Like Me], so he was there all the time. I was interning then, and I got to know all of them at that point. There was a creative thread from the beginning, when Butch and Steve [Marker] started the studio in 1983. They started it, as a lot of people do, to have a space to do their own music, to record bands, and to experiment. There was a strong feeling of encouraging experimentation and freedom and doing whatever you want. If we had an idea for something, we’d build it. There was a homemade plate reverb, and tons of discarded lab gear and test equipment. Mike and I became obsessed with the Cooper Time Cube [garden hose-based mechanical delay]. We couldn’t find one, so we built our own “Cooper Time Tube” out of garden hose and some [Shure] SM57s. There was a lot of very playful, open-minded “go for it” attitude there. Nothing was ever a problem. Have fun and be creative!
After that you moved to Portland, Oregon. Was that through Chris?
Yeah, Chris had a huge part in it. Chris was living in Portland for a number of years, and he had a studio in the basement of his house. When he went on tour one summer, he said, “I’m gonna be gone. I’ve got a studio in the basement. If you want to come live in the house and make some records, go for it.” I’ve always been of the mind that if you get an opportunity to go to a weird place and make a record, you need to do it. I went out there and spent some time in Portland, making records. Of course, Portland in the summer is amazing; it’s very easy to fall in love with. This was all a couple years before Smart closed. When Smart closed, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. I felt pretty lost. Death Cab were getting ready to do another record, and Chris called me a couple days after we decided to close Smart. He said, “I want you to help engineer this record, but this time on the recording side, not on the mixing side of it.” Alan Moulder was going to mix. I decided to move to Portland because I didn’t have a job anymore, but I did have this person I knew with a studio, and there was work for me on the West Coast for six months.
How’d you end up in the San Francisco Bay Area?
Again, through Chris, this time leading me to John Vanderslice. We tracked that record, Codes and Keys, in eight studios, all up and down the West Coast. Ben [Gibbard] was living in L.A. at the time, so we started off tracking at Sound City [Studios]. Chris was living in Portland, so we did some recording at Jackpot! [Recording Studio]. Nick [Harmer, bass] and Jason [McGerr, drums] were in Seattle, so we worked at London Bridge [Studio], Avast! [Recording Co.], and Jason’s old place [Two Sticks Audio]. We also went up to Vancouver, Canada, to The Warehouse [Studio], which was incredible. For strings, Magik*Magik Orchestra was in San Francisco, [California,] so Chris and I drove from Portland down to San Francisco. Of course, Death Cab and Tiny go back a few records before that, to Transatlanticism. That was the first time I met John [Vanderslice], and the first time I was at Tiny. I stayed in touch, and I was back to Tiny once or twice while still living in Portland. We recorded all the guitars for [Bob Mould’s] Silver Age there. A few years later, John came up to play a show at my house in Portland and said, “I’m building a studio in Oakland with a 56-channel Neve 8068. I want you to work there.” I loved Portland, but I didn’t really have a home base. I’d been working freelance in a lot of different studios, which I loved, but I missed the thing at Smart where I could walk into place and know how everything worked and where it goes. I had a familiarity, and I was missing that. The other factor that brought me to San Francisco was meeting my (now) wife, Maryam, who is from the Bay Area. We had started a relationship that was still long-distance at that time. I started thinking, “I’ve got this guy who’s building an incredible studio, who says he’s going to keep the rates affordable and wants me to work there; and I’ve got this girl I’m falling in love with.” It felt like I needed to move to San Francisco. I never thought I would live in the Bay Area. It always felt so out of reach, especially doing what I do. It felt if I’m not making iPhone apps, there’s no way I could ever afford to live here.
Did John pitch it to you that you were going to be one of the primary engineers and that he’d be getting you work? Or was it more like, “I want you working here”?
Knowing John, he probably promised me a puppy and whatever else I wanted! John’s a very persuasive guy. He did say, “There’s a lot of work at Tiny Telephone. We’re going to need someone to be here, and I want you to be one of the primary engineers.” Honestly, the way that he sold it to me was that he promised to keep the rates below $400 a day for as long as possible. This definitely stays in the zone of the type of projects I’m working on, because I don’t want to get to this area where I can’t afford to bring people in there. Originally, there was going to be a lodging component, which, for a lot of my projects, was a key thing. I started to see how that was such a critical part of the budget for projects. The lodging part unfortunately fell through, but that was part of the pitch that got me. “It’s going to be a studio in Oakland that’s affordable. There’s going to be a place for people to stay.” I felt I could get enough work there and keep things going.
You’ve done a lot of larger budget records, but you’ve also done a ton of smaller local projects. If keeping studio rates low is important to you, are your sympathies more with newer, younger artists?
Generally, yes. When I got into this, all I wanted to do was to be able to continue doing it. If I ended up working at a higher level, that sounds incredible, but I never set out to do that. As I continue working and get a little older, my sensibilities have started to align with someone more like Steve Albini [Tape Op #10, #87], who is very democratic about who he works with. There’s something very working-class and egalitarian about, “These are my rates. I will work as hard as I can to make your recording as great as I possibly can. I don’t take points as a producer on the back end.” I don’t charge more for “bigger” bands. I never want to become so exclusive that l won’t work with someone smaller. Smaller artists often have more freedom and radical ideas.
When you say you don’t take points, your discography looks like you’ve done more engineering than production. Is production something you shy away from?
I definitely don’t shy away from production. Somewhere along the way, I stopped believing in the dichotomy of “engineer” versus “producer.” Those terms are often quite vague in what they mean, and how it relates to what we’re actually doing. A producer can be all sorts of different roles. The classic idea of a producer – someone who picks the songs, chooses the musicians, books the studio, and gets the product done on time – feels so far in the past when someone on an iPad making beats is also a producer! It’s usually a collaborative situation, but, in many ways, almost all engineering decisions are aesthetic and creative, which a lot of people define as “production.” If I’m engineering a project and someone asks me to mic up the drums, unless they dictate every single microphone, exactly where to put them, which compressors to use with specific settings, and so on, then I’m making some of the aesthetic decisions about the record and what it’s going to end up sounding like. If I’m mixing a record and I choose which reverb to use, or I decide to mute the bass in the second verse, is that “producing”? I slowly stopped worrying about these distinctions, maybe to my deficit of not demanding that I get credited as a producer on some projects. I started seeing it as I’m less of either, and more of just a person who likes to be in studios and help people make music. Hopefully I get credited and respected in a way that honors what I’ve contributed. Most of the time, the people I work with make sure this happens.
Are you equally happy being an engineer with limited production responsibility as much as being an uncredited producer when you’re engineering, but also de facto producing?
That’s such a blurry line these days.
It is such a blurry line. I also run into situations where I’m working with an artist, and they’re worried that if I’m credited as a producer, someone’s going to think that I had all the ideas or wrote all the songs. Rather than push that to a level of friction, I’m like, “It’s fine. I’ll engineer.” I’m being compensated for it. If I’m writing, I get credit. The people who know, know what I did. That’s how I’ve navigated it, to some degree.
Do you also get people who specifically ask you to produce them?
I definitely get asked that too, and I’m always happy to produce if there’s space and bandwidth for me to do it. If someone’s going to be receptive to what I do, I’m more than happy to work in that way. A little bit of what held me back, earlier on, was not having an instrument I’m remarkably proficient at. A lot of great producers are great at guitar, drums, or accomplished songwriters, so they can offer that. I’m in that Brian Eno [Tape Op #85] “non-musician” camp, someone who fiddles around. Maybe that made me feel that I wasn’t deserving of that title earlier on. In a lot of sessions, the producer is viewed as a dictatorial mastermind, which has never been my style. I have ideas and I want something to be good, but I feel much more collaborative with people in the studio, responding to what they want and their ideas. I feel more like a facilitator than a top-down organizer.
It’s equally valid to be the producer, as well as viewing the role as helping everyone sift through everything and occasionally breaking the impasse.
Yes, exactly. Or be the tiebreaker.
“We could spend a half hour talking about it, or five minutes doing it.”
The idea will stand or fall on its own. That is the proof right there. I had a situation on a record where I was co-producing with someone else, and the band could not agree on mix decisions. It was a very binary, like a “more guitar solo/less guitar solo” thing. Eventually we said, “We’ll do both and let the mixes fight it out.” We ended up making these shirts that said, “LET MIXES FIGHT / NOT PEOPLE.” I still wear it to sessions sometimes!
As a studio owner I’ve seen a lot of younger engineers come through here with varying degrees of competence. The first time I met you, I realized that you are extremely competent, with a strong grasp of signal flow and troubleshooting, plus a calm demeanor. Where did that all come from?
Part of it is having a troubleshooting brain. Back to the hardware store, it’s a bit, “How do we solve this problem with the pieces that are available?” Going to school gave me a foundation in signal flow. I was lucky enough to come up in the old studio world, where I picked up some of that knowledge. I was fortunate to be an employee of the studio when I was working at Smart. Even as an assistant, there’s a role where you’re the ambassador for the studio, and you want the people there to be happy. Mike always said that you have to think of a studio like running a bed and breakfast. We’re in the hospitality industry. It taught me that when something isn’t working, be cool. Figure it out. Everything’s pretty logical. If it can’t work, figure out another way to do it. Always act as if nothing’s a problem, even when something’s definitely not working. I’ve seen smoke come out of consoles a couple of times, and you need to stay cool – “We’ll get through it! We’ll figure it out.” Trust in that. Having that time of being part of a studio – that I felt very protective of and wanted to make sure it was functioning properly – gave me a bunch of these skills. At this point, if I’m in an unfamiliar place, I can usually sort it out pretty quickly and stay cool.
You have quite a few releases on your beaunoise Bandcamp page. What is that project?
I started off playing guitar, piano, and messing around with drum machines – the classic arc for many recording people. My mother drove me two hours up to Duluth [Minnesota] to help me get my first 4-track, a [Tascam Portastudio] 424. As I started to get involved in recording, I interned and assisted for the first three or four years. I was completely on an engineering and producing path, and I stopped making any type of music. I was lucky enough to assist a few other engineer/producers who I could tell were clearly frustrated musicians. Somebody once made the joke that every recording engineer has a great, unfinished record that you’ll never hear – the carpenter’s house is never done. I saw some of that, the way a lot of engineers and producers had a need to satisfy their creativity through the projects they worked on, and how that caused conflict. I started to get back into my own music for a lot of different reasons, but one was to have a place to work creatively, so I could do a better job on the projects I was doing on professionally. If my idea doesn’t get used, that’s fine, because I have this sandbox over here where I can mess around with my own weird ideas. The other reason I started was as a R&D for sounds, processes, and treatments; figuring out how things work. I was working on a lot of indie rock records, which I loved – I still love making guitar music – but I’ve always had a big fascination with synthesizers. I didn’t want to put a bunch of synthesizers on somebody’s record who doesn’t need that. I noticed that as I started to release music, or let people know that I was making this music on the side, people would ask me for that kind of thing on their records. Of course, this correlates with the general resurgence and interest in synthesizers over the last 10 or 15 years as well, but, in a weird way, working on my own music ended up attracting the type of projects that wanted the skills and interests that I had anyway. It became this calling card, which I didn’t even realize until many years later. People would say, “I like that thing you did on that cassette. Could we do something like that here?” Suddenly I was getting work that reflected my sensibilities without even trying for it. That’s where it came from and why I continue to do it. It’s also to have a place for music that has no goals. I say this all the time, but it’s true: I don’t care if anyone listens to it or not. I love that people enjoy some of it. But it’s just for me to have a safe place for my own creativity.
You don’t seem too focused on promoting it, beyond simply posting it.
No. I love Bandcamp for what it does, because it lets me be an autonomous unit. I love the DIY aspect of packaging tapes, writing a note, and sending them out. Going back to what I talked about with engineers and producers who are creatively frustrated, I want to protect this part of my creative life so there aren’t any of the “music business” struggles of hoping to get noticed, wanting to get signed, or reaching some level of success. I want to keep this little area where it’s safe, to always allow me to have a spot where I can reconnect with the reason I got started.
Why the Buchla modular synth as your primary instrument? It’s such an unusual choice.
I first encountered what people refer to as “West Coast” synthesis through my good friend Tim Curtis, who was one of our techs at Smart. Tim had worked for Rex Probe at Sound Transform Systems when they were outside of Milwaukee, building and selling Serge panels. At the time I had a [Korg] MS-20, which was my gateway drug to synthesizers. I was always fascinated with modular synthesizers, but I had no access to that where I grew up. Tim said, “If you like synthesizers, I have this Serge system that I built when I was working at STS. It’ll blow your mind.” He brought it in to the studio and let me play with it, and I thought, “This is incredible! The possibilities! I can build something that can control anything.” There are no distinctions between audio and voltage; it’s all one continuum. There is something about the Serge that’s very elemental; very simple building blocks that have a lot of functionality, but you have to figure out how to build a lot of it. I was getting excited about West Coast-style synthesis but wanting something that was a slightly higher-level thing that had a little more structure, and I started learning about Don [Buchla] and his history. The Buchla presents some of these functions at a slightly higher level. Rather than building an oscillator or a filter from the ground up, higher-level features are presented to the user while still retaining the weirdness and tonality. This was when they were making the 200e systems, which also offer recall and MIDI. Because there was a Serge at the studio at the time, I thought, “I can always use Tim’s Serge, so I’ll get into this other flavor.” I sent Don an email saying, “I want to start with a small system.” He sent an email back, in his typical brusque manner, and said, “It’ll be this much money and will take six months. Send half.” At this point, I was working two different jobs: I was teaching engineering where I’d gone to school, and also recording at Smart. I was making more money than I had been in a while, and I thought, “I’m going to put this money into this system.” I sent the money and didn’t hear anything for six or seven months, so I sent another email: “Hi Don, I think I ordered a system from you. Any update on that?” He responded: “Don’t you still owe me some money?” He said it’d be ready, so I sent the other half. If I’m really honest, I got into it without completely knowing what I was getting into, but it’s one of those relationships where the more I’ve grown into it, the more I’ve grown to appreciate it and learn with it.
You were never into the Moog/East Coast-style?
I don’t dislike it, but it mirrors my taste for studio gear. I’ve never wanted to own a [Universal Audio] 1176, because every studio in the world has an 1176. I want the thing that I can’t find elsewhere. I can always find a [Moog] Minimoog, so I’m always attracted to the weirdest thing in the room. I guess it was my desire to dabble in the esoteric. There are definitely times where I could use a classic low-pass filter! Now we have a bunch of other synthesizers in our home setup, including some Moogs.
You worked on Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of the Mountain with Mark Linkous [Sparklehorse, Tape Op #12], right?
Yes, while I was still working at Smart. Like Chris, a big reason Mark was drawn to Smart was the A Range console. Mark was an incredible aficionado of recording equipment. He had an old Flickinger desk that had belonged to Sly Stone. Alan Weatherhead came with him, and he also worked with Danger Mouse [Brian Burton] on that record as well. It was the four of us at Smart over a couple of weeks. We ended on Christmas Day, if I remember correctly.
I’m not familiar with Alan Weatherhead.
He’s from out East. Great producer and excellent studio presence. Very calm, and a great guy. I owe it to Mike Zirkel for turning me on to Sparklehorse. Like John Vanderslice, Mark’s records were referenced at Smart all the time, in terms of creativity, sound, texture, and how cool and interesting those records were. The fact that he was coming there was momentous; it was pretty exciting. He’s probably the closest person I’ve worked with who I would describe as having that Brian Wilson-type genius. His sensibility about parts, and intuition and sense for sounds and chasing them, was so remarkable. I remember when he first came in, we had a little Yamaha VSS-100 sampler by the patchbay. It’s Yamaha’s version of the [Casio] SK-1. When he came to the studio for the first time, he walked over to the VSS-1 and started singing into it and making these weird little sounds and sampling himself. I thought, “What is this guy doing?” There was all this legendary gear in there, and that was the first thing he’s drawn to? A week later those little bits ended up on the record. I thought he was just messing around!
What did Danger Mouse bring to that record?
Brian brought a huge amount of the rhythmic sense, feel, drums, sampling, resampling, and arrangements. There was a huge wall of all the CDs that had been done at Smart there. The first thing he did when he got there was grab all of them and ripping every single one into his computer. Watching him go through media was amazing, because he was looking for samples everywhere. I was aware of the idea of sample-digging, but he was looking for samples all of the time. Everywhere. Every possible source. That was inspirational to me; the idea that you never know where you can find a piece of sound that you can use for something else. Just being open about it at all moments. They were all wonderful to work with. Very quiet, low key, and very thoughtful.
Alan and Brian equally co-produced?
Brian was weighing in on the aesthetic, stylistic side more, and Alan was handling the engineering and recording, but all of them were contributing. Mark was clearly leading, but everybody was bringing things to the table.
Was everybody pretty even, personality-wise?
Yeah. Everybody was remarkably easy in that way. It was cool, and very open. Brian would add big, bold changes, like, “What if we took the drums in this section and then slowed them all down and reversed them for four bars?” Very large-scale, re-contextualizing in ways I wasn’t even thinking about. A couple of songs had big arrangement changes at a later stage because of that. It was inspiring to be unafraid to completely chop something up or reimagine it at any time.
You’ve done quite a few records with Bob Mould [Tape Op, online].
I have. Starting with Silver Age, we’ve done five together, and worked on a couple other records as an engineer/producer team. I was initially connected to Bob through working with Death Cab, as they shared management. I believe my name was recommended when he was getting ready to record Silver Age. Bob produced records at Smart long before I was around – he worked with Tar Babies there, and he and Butch knew each other. Bob was one of the people shortlisted to produce [Nirvana’s] Nevermind! I think knowing I started at Smart made Bob feel like it was a solid endorsement for my background. I got tossed into working with him on Silver Age, and it’s been the closest thing I could have to grad school for my recording career. His ability to focus on details to a fine degree, but also stand back and consider the whole picture – all the way out to the album level – is remarkable. His understanding of song is probably deeper than anyone else I’ve worked with. Knowing if an arrangement is solid and ready to move forward with, or figuring out what needs to work together. His harmonic sense is incredibly rich. I started to understand how his records came together and sounded so full with just a few guitars. The level of detail in how to record guitars, how to approach voicing, how to sort out dense, complicated tonality and distortion. These are some of things I’ve learned from working on his records. I feel incredibly lucky to have spent time in the studio around Bob.
You’ve done a couple records with Superchunk, but also a solo one with Mac McCaughan, [Tape Op #76] and quite a few other projects for Merge Records?
Yeah. I just finished mixing another record for Mac, The Sound of Yourself. As you’ve noticed in this conversation, one thing leads to another. Mac is a fan of Bob’s work and Silver Age was on Merge. A lot of people noticed Bob again with Silver Age. Like, “Whoa, this is the Bob we’ve been missing!” That got Mac and Merge excited. He sent me an email asking about doing a Superchunk record. I mixed some songs for their I Hate Music album, alongside some other engineers, and I also recorded and mixed all of their What A Time To Be Alive.
Who are some other engineers you admire?
Scott Solter [Tape Op #67] is one. He worked on some of my favorite Vanderslice records. He brought a lot to John’s sound. Brian Paulson [#78] is another. Brian worked at Smart a bunch and was always spoken of highly there. He did the Slint record, Spiderland, of course, and The Spinanes’ Manos; both of which I admire greatly. And Jim O’Rourke [#16]!
What was working with Tune-Yards [Tape Op #88, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life] like?
Oh, man. Similar to the freedom of working with Brian on Sparklehorse. The same idea of throwing a lot of studio conventions out the window about what it needs to sound like or what things should be. It was probably the most playful session I’ve ever worked on, in the best way. I was allowed to set up a whole bunch of crazy processing chains. A lot of times when I’m working, I’ll set up one or two. If I’m recording a pretty traditional rock band, I might have the [Eventide] H3000 on a send so I can secretly be recording bits. If somebody needs a nugget, I’ve got one ready. “Here’s a weird sound for the break.” Working on Tune-Yards was doing nothing but that. Two things stand out: One of them was figuring out a very complicated vocal chain, where Merrill [Garbus] could play the [Korg] MS-20 and sing through the processing section of it in the live room, so we could also catch the room mics at Tiny Telephone. That live room in Oakland sounds great, especially on vocals. Then we were also running that back through the Publison DHM-89, which is this crazy French pitch shifter. So, Merrill is playing the MS-20, singing through it, and we’re capturing a dry vocal, that MS-20 vocal, her manipulations of that vocal through the Publison, and the room mics. Talking about the problem-solving thing, it’s like, “How do we get all this routing to work?” But it also was really fun. The other thing I carry with me from the Tune-Yards session is at one point we were cleaning up some tracks and doing some edits. As anybody who works in a DAW a lot does, you start to do certain tasks subconsciously, like hitting Apple-S. You’re saving all the time. I’m always habitually cleaning up noises and edits. I’ve learned that if I do it as I go, then there’s less to do later. At one point there was an unfaded edit, and I went to add a fade, like I’m always doing, and Merrill asked, “What are you doing? I never fade anything. I like how things sound without fades.” The rule from then on was that if I wanted to fade something, I had to wait to be asked to fade it! That little clip at the end is part of the rhythmic information. It was a cool reminder of, “Oh, yeah. You don’t have to fade everything. There can be a digital clip in there. That’s legal. In fact, that’s part of what makes it what it is.”
I’ve heard about the Publisons. Is that the Infernal Machine?
It’s the one before that. It’s like the French H3000. There are two delays and two pitch shifters that feed into each other. There’s a looping function in there, and a keyboard that I’ve never been able to find. It’s a crazy noisemaker, which I’m always drawn to.
You also worked with Thao & the Get Down Stay Down?
We’ve done two records, A Man Alive and Temple. That was the first record I did at Tiny Telephone after I moved here. I got to dig in and get to know the place. Merrill [Garbus] was producing, and that was how I first met Merrill. Merrill and Thao go way back. Merrill’s bringing a lot of those same sensibilities to that record. I love that situation, being the engineer on a project where it’s okay to depart with all the regular recording gear and say, “What’s the oddest thing you’ve got in here? What’s the thing you’re not supposed to do?” Incorporating it in a way where we’ll be able to use it and it’ll sound halfway decent. Those are always fun for me.
One record you did that stuck out to me was Jars of Clay’s Inland.
When I moved to Portland, I took a leap and reached out to one of my heroes, Tucker Martine [Tape Op #29]. At that point in my career, I had done some records I was proud of, and I was doing the freelance thing, but I didn’t know where to go next. I’d wanted to go back to assisting for a while, because I wanted to work for someone else who I could learn from and not be in the driver’s seat for a bit. I told Tucker, “I would love to assist you on some records.” I didn’t want to learn his “secrets” or anything. I wanted to be pushed through to some other experiences I wouldn’t normally have. I started assisting him, and one of those projects was a Jars of Clay record that he produced that we tracked together. Then he got busy coming up here [Panoramic House] to do a record [The Waterfall] with My Morning Jacket, and he asked me if I’d be interested in mixing [Jars of Clay]. I mixed it all except maybe one song, of course with Tucker’s guidance. He was checking the mixes remotely and offering his input. Those guys are the sweetest guys ever; they’re great. They’ve got a great studio in Nashville that we went out to and tracked some parts there. I’m super proud of how that record sounds.
How often do you mix an album through the console at Tiny Telephone down to an analog tape machine? Does that still happen once in a while?
Less these days, but still pretty regularly. A lot of projects are half and half. I’ll have a project that was tracked in Pro Tools, but then they wanted the mixes printed to 1/2-inch, so we’ll do that. The benefit of being in a studio that has two Studer A820s and an [Ampex] ATR-102 [tape decks] that are being used regularly means the barrier to using them is much lower. It happens more than it would if you had to seek them out. I probably only have two or three purely analog projects a year now. I’m pretty format-agnostic; I don’t care. I’m totally happy to work in Pro Tools. It’s more about whether it matches the sensibilities of the person I’m working with. If tape matches their speed, great. If there’s friction because they want stuff that’s not possible, or they’re imposing their process onto it, then it’s a bummer.
Outside of the beaunoise projects, how much of your work are you doing at your home studio now?
One of the best lessons I got early on at Smart was from a producer named Brandon Mason, who had come up working on records out East. He worked at Allaire [Studios] on a couple of later-period Bowie records [Reality and Heathen, with Tony Visconti, Tape Op #29]. He was working at Smart while I was interning, and one of the first things he told me was, “No matter where you go, no matter what you’re working on – I don’t care if you’re the lead engineer at Abbey Road – always have a way to record and mix music on your own, outside of a studio.” I took that to heart and always made sure I had a home setup, even if it was very modest. Throughout my life and career, it’s saved me a million times. At this point, I would say maybe half of what I do is at home in some way, and the rest is in studios.
Mostly unattended, now. The last year has been different, of course. Sometimes there’s production work where, if we have to record some parts together or program, it’s nice to be in the same room. And mixing, the very end of the revision process. A home studio allows me to take on more projects, because there are a lot I want to be part of!
You’re a Bay Area native, right?
I’ve been in the Bay Area my whole life. My parents are from Ghazni, Afghanistan. In the late-70s, my father had a job teaching Farsi to American diplomats and foreigners living in Afghanistan. A couple from Berkeley, California, who my father was teaching in Kabul, offered to sponsor him to come to the U.S. He was able to get a visa, and his plan was to go the U.S. for one year to go to school, work, and see if a life in America would be right for himself, as well as my mother and sister, who was three weeks old at the time. When he landed in the Bay Area, and one of his first jobs was working at Doggie Diner in Oakland – a well-known Bay Area institution back then. Shortly after he arrived in the U.S., the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He scrambled to save money and find a way to get my mother and sister out of Afghanistan. After 18 months of being apart (with their main form of communication being through letters and pictures in the mail), my mother and sister were able to get a visa. He came home one day to find a note from his roommate letting him know that my mother and sister would be landing in SFO that afternoon! My parents both worked double shifts at low wage jobs for several years; my father at Doggie Diner by day and at a juice factory at night. My mother worked as a housekeeper while also going to school for electronic assembly. That’s where she learned about the fundamentals of circuits, hardware, and testing equipment. That landed her a job soldering electronic components to build telephones. They moved between different jobs throughout their lives, and eventually opened up businesses of their own, including a Charlie’s Liquors in Hayward, California. They also opened a diner in San Leandro called Olympic Burgers, and later moved to a small town in the middle of California called Avenal, running a grocery store called T&T Market. My parents worked hard to build a life for my family.
Did you speak Farsi in your household growing up?
I spoke Farsi at home with my family until I went to grade school and had to speak English. My English was pretty broken at the time; I remember being in preschool and having a hard time communicating with people and making friends. When you’re young, you learn new languages pretty easily and my English dominated very quickly. I still speak Farsi when I’m at home.
What age were you when you started playing music and getting serious about that?
I was really into rock music when I was growing up; my siblings played a great role in introducing me to music at a young age. One of the bands they first introduced me to was Depeche Mode; I remember being a young teen singing along to “Enjoy the Silence” in my bedroom, karaoke-style. I would dream of being on stage singing and playing guitar to my own songs someday. I asked my parents to buy me a guitar for my 12th birthday and they gave each other a look of worry. [laughs] I grew up in a Muslim household, with parents who were moderately religious and had some cultural beliefs that they had held on to. They had this picture of, “Oh, no! Guitars! Rock music! Drugs!” All the stereotypes raced through their heads. In Afghanistan, non-traditional music was frowned upon and not very many women were performing music in public settings. In Ghazni, there weren’t very many concerts happening to begin with, and even if there were, women were not allowed to attend. However, things were a little more relaxed in Kabul. My parents talk about driving to Kabul and going to concerts by some of their favorite musicians. Ahmad Zahir – a beloved Afghan musician known as the “Afghan Elvis” – was one of the first Afghan musicians to introduce western instruments such as drums, bass, and guitar into Afghan music. My father stopped at a restaurant in Kabul one day; live music was playing, and he was introduced to [Ustad Farida] Mahwash, one of the very few female musicians performing in Afghanistan at the time. During that time, women in music could be counted on one hand. No one in my family plays any musical instruments, other than my aunt and uncle who play harmonium and tabla together for fun. With some support and encouragement from family, my parents gave in and got me a guitar for my birthday. I sat in my room for many, many hours every day, singing and playing songs by my favorite artists. Eventually, I was at a grocery store with my mom, and I saw that they had a cassette recorder for sale. I thought, “Maybe I can record my songs with this?” I would sit in my bedroom and record covers of Weezer songs that sounded very distorted and crushed. I still have those cassettes in a box somewhere.
Have your aunt or uncle played on any of your music projects?
They haven’t played on any of my projects, but I would love to get them involved in something. My uncle has always been so encouraging. Whenever I see him, he asks, “Are you still doing the music thing?” When I answer, “Yes,” he’ll say, “Okay, cool. Keep going. It’s so great for your life.”
You’ve had the music projects Doe Eye and Spacemoth. How do these relate to studio work?
Doe Eye was my first solo project and it was what lead me into the path of engineering and producing. I started out recording demos through that cassette recorder and then graduated to using [Apple] Logic, but wanted my songs to sound more professional. A friend recommended that I reach out to John Vanderslice [Tape Op #10] at Tiny Telephone Recording, which lead to a decade-long friendship. JV produced an EP and a full-length record of mine, with the help of two excellent engineers at Tiny: Jacob Winik and James Riotto. Working at Tiny Telephone was one of my first experiences working in a professional recording studio, and it blew my mind. When I was working on my own music at studios, I wanted to learn what the engineers and producers I was working with were doing. I also found it hard to communicate what I wanted, because so much of what I heard was in my head. I didn’t have the technical knowledge at that point to say, “I want more reverb!” Or, “I want more delay.” That’s what eventually got me into wanting to learn all of that. So that I could both communicate that to the engineers I was working with, but also so that I could noodle around on my own and play around with some of my own music as well. The experiences I had at Tiny Telephone inspired me to take on a career path as an engineer/producer, and the years I spent learning, discovering, and experimenting with music and recording is what lead me to start my current solo project, Spacemoth.
You’re not playing much guitar anymore, are you? Is Spacemoth mostly electronic?
I am playing guitar on those songs, but they’re so manipulated and combined with electronic elements that they don’t sound like guitars anymore.
Manipulated through all the modular synths or pedals?
I use all sorts of things! Modular synthesizers, guitar pedals, and unique outboard effects. I like taking a pretty standard-sounding instrument – a guitar or a piano – and then destroying it completely so it becomes unrecognizable.
How did you make the transition to engineering and producing as a career? I know you spent some time at Women’s Audio Mission.
Working on my own music project at Tiny Telephone inspired me to a whole other level; there was an excitement and drive to experiment that I did not experience in any other studio. I would look forward to every session and was so sad when it was over. I remember wishing that I could be there all the time! Watching JV interact with the songs that I brought to him was exciting to me. My songs would start out as an acoustic guitar and a vocal and then turn into these amazing productions. I remember thinking, “If I could walk into a recording studio, make a cup of coffee, work with a band and help them record and produce music, that would be the ultimate dream!” One of the assistant engineers at Tiny Telephone, Kelley Coyne, worked at Women’s Audio Mission and encouraged me to check them out. I decided to take an Intro to Recording class at Women’s Audio Mission and learned about the basics of recording. Shortly after, I reached out to John to see if he would let me sit in on some sessions and intern, and he was very supportive. At the same time, I applied for an internship at Women’s Audio Mission and got into that as well. I was interning at both studios. Eventually I spent the evenings recording my friends’ bands and trying to figure out how to run a session on my own. What I learned about interning at recording studios is that you see a lot of people come and go, but I stuck around for a while. If you stick around long enough, eventually there will be a session that no one can take, and someone will turn to you to take the work; that’s exactly what happened to me. If you can jump into a session when someone needs you to, and the artist leaves happy, you’ve then proven that you can do it. Before I knew it, I was working as a staff engineer at both Women’s Audio Mission and at Tiny Telephone.
Spacemoth is a serious project for you. You tour, and you have a label and a publicist. How do you balance being in a band and working as an engineer and producer?
I’ve learned over the several years of working as a producer that my schedule can be totally chaotic. If I don’t take control of that I could continue to live in that world of chaos forever. I’ve learned to schedule everything. I schedule my workdays, my days off, and I schedule the time that I work on my music. It wasn’t an easy transition at first, but balance is important to me. Performing and making my own music was what lead to my deep connection to music and has always been an important part of my musical existence. I'm currently working on the first Spacemoth record with Sadie Dupuis [Tape Op #142] of Speedy Ortiz and Sad13, and look forward to sharing more details on that soon.
Beau mentioned he’s working with you mixing this new record. What’s the thought process to have someone else come in and help with the mixing, whether it’s Beau or someone else?
I spend a lot of time inside of my own songs and, at a certain point, an outside perspective is necessary. Most of my process is spent alone; I perform and record almost all of the instruments on my songs. Working with Beau is a natural transition because he understands me and my music so well. We understand each other’s workflow, and having him work on my mixes is the most amazing scenario. We can dig deep together, and since there aren’t any time constraints, we can get to places on the songs that we normally wouldn’t be allowed to get to working on someone else’s project. It also feels good to let go and allow someone else to do their magic.
Do you ever see getting someone else besides Beau to mix some of your projects?
I’m not against it, but it works so well. I’ve never considered the idea of someone else mixing my songs because working with Beau is the ultimate dream scenario; he understands me on a personal and creative level in a way that no one else can.
Do you feel your experience as an artist and a writer, being on the other side of the glass, informs your approach as a producer and engineer with other artists?
When I’m working with artists, I listen to every aspect of their songs, from the writing, to the arrangements, to all of the instruments that they’re using or wanting to use. I’ll find myself suggesting a rhythmic change on a vocal, or, “What if you change that word to this word so that the phrasing works a little bit better?” Those are what I’ve learned, from writing songs and producing my own music, that I’m able to hand over to the people I work with. Of course, there’s a fine line to how many suggestions that you can give, depending on the people that you work with. I feel that because I have a background as a musician, people tend to trust me with that advice. I’m able to give tips on singing, and emotional support of understanding what it’s like to be on the other side of the glass. A lot of engineers forget what it’s like to be the artist who is at the studio recording, and how much anxiety and emotion is built up to that recording session. I remember when I would get ready for a recording session, it was the most exciting, nerve-wracking time. Every time I was behind a mic, I was both excited and nervous at the same time. I always try to remember that feeling whenever I have someone behind a microphone, whether they’re singing or if they’re playing guitar. What often gets forgotten is how much pressure and emotion is behind that single guitar take or that single vocal take. The emotional landscape of recording music is very wide, and having the skill and awareness to support people through that experience, as well as helping them feel safe in that zone, is probably one of the harder parts of the job. It’s also one of the more rewarding, because you end up with beautiful, heartfelt recordings. A lot of my own experience as an artist has greatly informed how I run a recording session.
Do you end up singing and working on vocal arrangements on projects that you work on?
Yeah. I enjoy it, and I do end up in that position a lot. It’s easy, because I’m right there and I always have an idea. I’ll say, “Oh, someone should sing this harmony.” They’re like, “Well, why don’t you go do it?” I never say it with the intention of, “Put me in!” It’s more that I have the ideas, and I hear a lot of vocal melodies, and I can sing. Plus, it’s fun to put the pressure on someone else to hit record!
I met you when you were out at Panoramic House working on a Zelma Stone record.
I’ve engineered, produced, and mixed a few Zelma Stone EPs. I started working with Chloe [Studebaker] a couple years ago. She is such an incredible songwriter, singer, and performer. She has such a strong vision for her music and is very open to experimenting and transforming her songs. I always have a lot of fun working with Chloe because she’s not afraid of making big bold choices on her songs.
You mentioned Sadie Dupuis. What was it like working with her on the Sad13 record?
Sadie came to the Bay Area to work on three songs with me for her record Haunted Painting. We worked at Tiny Telephone in Oakland and in San Francisco. It was just her and her drummer, Zoë Brecher. Like myself, Sadie plays most of the instruments on her records except for drums; though she is ten times more talented at every instrument than I am! Sadie loves to explore. We had 15 or 20 pedals that we played with, and definitely plugged in every synth and mic’d every instrument. It felt like working with someone who you already knew, somebody who you’re familiar with, and you understand what they’re trying to do and what they’re wanting out of their music. It was easy to suggest instruments, like the Moog Source or the Prophet VS; knowing that these are definitely instruments that this person’s going to use. At that time, Tiny Telephone in San Francisco had a harpsichord, but some of the strings were broken. I didn’t realize that Sadie wanted to record it before she came to the studio; but it was on the gear list, so she had prepared a part for harpsichord that she wanted to play. There wasn’t an easy way to tune it without breaking a string; in fact, a few of the notes that she needed were already broken. So, I said, “Sorry, Sadie; I guess we can’t record this harpsichord. But what if we record it on a piano, and I’ll mess around with it a little bit and see what happens?” I remembered that we have this box of tools for piano treatment, like ping-pong balls, metal chains, and paperclips. So, we placed them over the strings of the piano, and, in a weird way, it sounded kind of like a harpsichord because the bouncing ping-pong balls and chains brought out the bright metal sounds of the strings. It turned a bummer studio moment into a unique recording. That was a pretty strong memory of us working together.
You also worked with Toro y Moi and The Mattson 2.
We worked on one song together, a cover of “Ordinary Guy” by Joe Bataan. I was working at Women’s Audio Mission on another project, and Terri Winston – the founder at WAM [Tape Op #78] – walked into the studio and said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” I said, “I’m off.” But you know what “off” means, right? [laughter] She said, “Chaz [Bundick] of Toro y Moi wants to come record here with The Mattson 2. Would you want to work on the session?” I said, “Yes! I’m free.” So, the very next day the three of them came over to WAM. We built the song from scratch, and started by recording Jonathan [Mattson, drums], Jared [Mattson, guitar] and Chaz [bass and vocals] live in one room together. After that, we layered all the different pieces of the song, one by one. At one point, Chaz was messing around with some keyboard sounds on a Korg Karma, an early-2000s keyboard that only had super cheesy presets that nobody ever wanted to use. We were listening to him move through all the different presets, and he got to these outrageous sounds that you definitely don’t want to use – ever. We were all confident that there would be nothing to be found in that keyboard that would work, but we were proven wrong. Chaz found a cool sound that we blended with an effect that ended up being on the song. I’ve found that great musicians can make any instrument sound good, and both Chaz and The Mattson 2 are such incredible musicians. They’re so good at playing their instruments that you don’t have to work very hard to make them sound great – all you have to do is place the microphone in the right way and your work is done.
You worked with Thao & The Get Down and Tune-Yards as well, right?
I have worked with both of them! I assisted the last Thao record, Temple, and engineered and assisted on Tune-Yards’ I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. For the Thao record they recorded everything at Tiny Telephone San Francisco. It was Thao and her whole band recording with her: Adam Thompson, Charlie Glenn, and Jason Slota. Beau was engineering. They go really deep into chopping up and processing everything they record, which is part of what makes their records sound so cool and unique. I also ended up singing background vocals on “I’ve Got Something.” For Tune-Yards, we worked at Tiny Telephone in Oakland. We set up a ton of different instruments and drum machines to experiment with; I was even live-dubbing a Lexicon PCM41 on a song or two. There was also another moment where there was this big group background vocal, and Merrill [Garbus] said, “Maryam, come sing with us!” Nate [Brenner], Merrill, John Vanderslice (who was visiting for lunch), and I got in the live room and sang on “ABC 123” and “Look At Your Hands.” The track that I engineered was recording strings on “Heart Attack” at Women’s Audio Mission with Dina Maccabee, who plays violin and viola. She’s this amazing “string machine.” We recorded many layers of violins and viola until it turned into a massive string section. That was early on when I started engineering, so I remember being so nervous. I was thinking, “Oh, man! This is a Tune-Yards record. I’m working with Merrill. We’re recording strings.” Strings can be so hard to record, but it all went fine. I remember we solo’d all of the strings, listening to them completely dry, and Merrill said that the tonality of the strings sounded like [The Beatle’s] “Eleanor Rigby.” I thought, “I did okay!” Merrill is someone who I’ve continued to work with outside of her records. When Red Bull Music Academy was around, we worked on a radio show together called Collaborative Legions of Artful Womxn. It featured all of these different female-identifying producers and engineers. The premise of the show was an hour-long playlist of music by female-identifying producers, along with an interview by a featured artist, as well as a song collaboration between two producers. It opened up my world to all of these different women producers and engineers. Suzi Analogue [#130] was someone I discovered while researching for the show. We worked on that for a couple of years, and we continue to work on projects together from time to time. Same with Nate Brenner, who’s the other half of Tune-Yards. He’s played bass and synths on some Spacemoth songs. I’ve played in his band, Naytronix – sampling, playing synths, and singing. Nate and Merrill are one of many artists where we started off working together professionally and then blossomed into a deeper friendship.
Do you feel you’re less “on an island” now as a female producer and engineer? Or does it feel like you’re still looking for other people on the same island?
I know a lot of women and non-binary folks who are producers and engineers – some are working professionally with other artists, or they are successful at producing their own music. That community keeps growing, thanks to places like Women’s Audio Mission. I don’t feel there is a lack of non-male producers and engineers, but there is a lack of visibility, as well as people hiring women and non-binary producers and engineers. Day by day, I see more of these people given the spotlight, or the opportunity to work on something great, and that gives me hope.
Beau Sorenson & Maryam Qudus:
Working & Living Together
How did you two meet?
MQ: I had just finished my full-length Doe Eye record [Television], that I had recorded at Tiny Telephone with John Vanderslice [Tape Op #10]. I went to the San Francisco Symphony with him and his girlfriend at the time. They walked me back to my car, and I realized that I had parked right in front of the Rickshaw Stop; a music venue in San Francisco. A friend who works there fairly often is Aaron Axelsen – who was the music director at Live 105. Chris Walla [Death Cab for Cutie, #19, #111] was in town, and he was talking to Aaron about some of the bands on his label [Trans- Records] at the time. Aaron said, “Come meet Chris!” Chris has a connection to Tiny Telephone, because he loaned his Neotek Elite II to Tiny. Chris knew a bit about my project and knew that I was working with JV. He said, “I’d love to hear your record.” I gave him a burned CD. Chris listened to my record, loved it, and we were talking about him putting it out on his label. A few weeks passed, and I got a message from Beau…
BS: After working together at Smart [Studios, Tape Op #11] and on other projects, Chris and I had continued the relationship. We would send each other records, and he sent me the record that would be Television. I’ve usually resisted sending cold emails to people I want to work with. [to Maryam] There was something about your record that I wanted to send you a message about. It was probably under the guise of hoping we could work together in some way, but also trying to connect to someone who I thought was making cool music.
MQ: Beau and I continued to be Twitter friends; an internet audio/musician acquaintance. There was a point at which Beau knew that he was going to be in San Francisco, and had messaged me saying, “I’m in town and working on this record. Do you want to meet up and get coffee?” At the time he was working on Bob Mould’s record [Beauty & Ruin] at Different Fur [Studios]. His session ran late, so we met for dinner instead. I remember driving home and thinking, “I like this person.”
BS: It was sort of a date that wasn’t intended to be a date. We hung out a couple more times while I was here, and we started talking. I went back to Portland, but we never stopped talking.
What year was that?
When did you two get married?
MQ: We got married in 2017.
BS: There was about a year or so where I was still living in Portland, and you were living in the Bay Area.
MQ: We’d travel back and forth to see each other, and eventually JV was building Tiny Telephone Oakland. He said, “What if we get Beau to work at Tiny Telephone?” He offered Beau a job at the studio, and also to live upstairs at Tiny Telephone.
BS: There was a small apartment space that was available for very, very cheap rent for the Bay Area. I thought, “I have to do this.”
Did Chris make it to the wedding?
MQ: Yes, he did! He officiated our wedding!
BS: We got married at City Hall in San Francisco, and we felt Chris was the most appropriate person to do the ceremony. He got ordained on the internet.
You both have the same job. Are there boundaries that you have come up with?
BS: Music takes a lot of different forms; from listening to something that you’re not working on, or listening to a project that the other person is working on. As we’ve been living together, working on more music in the house, and as I’m getting older, I’ll spend more time sitting in silence. I’ve mostly stopped listening to music in the car, other than referencing mixes. I build in some gaps, but there are no rules about it. There’s always a respect for, “Do you want to hear this right now, or not?” We can always say, “I’m not going to think about a snare drum right now.” But, usually, it’s fair game. Is that true?
MQ: Yeah, I think so. We are pretty big music nerds. We really do love listening to music all the time. But, as you said, the breaks naturally happen. If we do listen to a record at the end of the day, it might be pretty soft and minimal and can be in the background. At the same time, we have days off where we do very deep listening. We bought all these new records; “We’re going to sit on the couch and listen to these records, and there’s gonna be no talking.”
BS: There’s less passive listening in my life now. I either want to be engaged or not.
Do you discuss how your work is going, and any gripes about sessions you’re on?
BS: We commiserate a lot. It’s a godsend to have someone who understands the very specific – but very challenging – aspect of working in music creatively. When we take a break, like a vacation, then it’s definitely no work time for a while. But, other than that, it’s fair game, right?
MQ: It’s helpful, and we can be honest with each other about how a session went. We don’t have to pretend everything went great. By unpacking it with each other, we can give perspective. “Maybe you’re being too hard on a person. Perhaps you’ve got to talk to them.” The emotional dynamics in a session are a roller coaster. It’s nice to be able to talk to somebody about that who understands it.
What about when you’ve both had a crappy day?
MQ: There aren’t very many days where we’ve both had a bad or stressful day, but even when it does happen we let it out. At a certain point, when we’re going in circles, we’ll say, “Maybe we should stop talking about this for right now.”
BS: I feel we’re lucky enough where even if there’s something challenging, there’s always good in there. The fact that we both make music creatively also helps us have empathy for the people who are on the other side of the glass.
What do you guys do to get away from music when you’re at home?
BS: We go on a lot of walks and a lot of hikes. We enjoy cooking immensely, and it’s a great way to spend time together. It’s been a lot more reading lately, and movies from time to time.
MQ: Most of our days off are focused on keeping things simple. Going on a hike. Getting a nice cup of coffee somewhere. Making dinner. If we go out of town, it’s usually somewhere in nature and very quiet.
Do both of you have fairly late hours being in the studio? Are you guys able to get home at a somewhat reasonable hour, or are you cooking dinner at midnight?
BS: We’ve gotten better about that. I would say that most times we get home by 9 or 10, unless there are special circumstances where we need to work later. Because we are both working a lot, it’s hard. If you do too many of longer days, everything starts to collapse.
MQ: There was a period of time where we were both very busy and working a lot. We weren’t giving ourselves time off. I remember a stretch where we didn’t have a day off for 30 days. Then we had one day off, and we went on to another two-week session immediately. What we’ve learned now is to schedule everything. Arrange the session days so they align with each other’s calendars as much as possible, and have days off that are the same. Most nights we do end up eating dinner by 9 or 10 p.m., which is not too bad.
Has it been easier since you both work out of Tiny Telephone primarily, especially now that there’s only one Tiny and only one person can work there at a time? Easier than when you were both working between the Oakland and San Francisco locations?
BS: Yeah, it streamlined it a lot. We also work at New, Improved [Recording], which is in the same building as Tiny. There will be days when we both go in and we’re working in two studios, in the same building, which is crazy. If one of us is working at Tiny, then the other person can be working at home. We can throw a little laundry in or put food in the oven early and then get back to work. It’s a way to keep your life running at the same time.
How many days a month do you guys block off?
BS: For days off? You came up with this…
MQ: We have a system. Our system is we work sessions four to five days a week, hopefully on the same days. Then we will have a day off that is purely off. Then a day to work on our own music, as well as a miscellaneous catch-up day.
BS: There’s an allowance to poach a day if a project’s important, or last-minute, or needs some extra time. But there’s an understanding that you don’t get to pave over all the days off. It’s a reminder of what a good balance feels like. When it hits that balance, it’s cool: We’ve got work, we’re earning enough money to survive, and our creative projects have been nurtured.
You’re probably doing fewer two- to three-week sessions these days, right? Nobody does that anymore.
BS: I wish I had a couple more of those a year, because I do like them. I couldn’t do them all the time. These days, for both of us, a week is probably the max. Almost everybody we work with needs to either catch up with their work or take care of their family.
Do you guys have anything else you want to add?
BS: I feel that covers the way that we work together. My hope is that it could help people – even when they’re not in this situation where they’re both engineer/producers – to manage their life with another person. After I moved here and was working a lot, we went through a period that was pretty rough – with a bit of friction about time off – but this has helped us get through that.