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...