Many folks who work in the studio straddle the line between musician and engineer on any given day. Sami Perez has kept her feet in both worlds since her teenage years. The result is a sparkling body of work with her bands The She’s and Harry the Nightgown, as well as a variety of credits such as The Dates, Sasami, Sonny & The Sunsets, and The California Honeydrops. Specific gear and toys didn’t find their way much into our chat when we met at her Wiggle World Studio in L.A. Instead, the effort to keep an analog mind in a digital world became the theme of the hour, and, for my own adventures, the topic of the year.
You started with The She’s when you were pretty young, right?
We were all best friends starting in kindergarten, and we started The She’s in seventh grade. The lineup hasn’t changed since then. It’s as much about our friendship as it is about the music. If not even more about the friendship. We learned our instruments together for The She’s. When we were in fifth grade, we had a band called My Noisy Neighbors, and it was nine girls. We were all best friends, we all played guitar, and we all sang. We did two concerts at our school with that band, and then The She’s were the four of us who said, “We should start a real band. You learn bass, you learn drums, you’re going to sing, and we’re going to be just like The Donnas.”
How early on did you start recording and touring with that band?
Almost right away. We had gone to a rock camp at the JCC [Jewish Community Center], and the guy who was running it wanted to record us. We started with him in seventh or eighth grade. The summer after eighth grade, we were playing a festival in the Mission [District of San Francisco] outside, and someone from Women’s Audio Mission [WAM] saw us and wanted to record us. We did an album with them. Before that, too, we did an EP with Nat Keefe from Hot Buttered Rum – who’s also in the Bay Area scene – because he was our guitar teacher when we were in fifth grade. We were recording right away. It was all very overwhelming. It was a lot of fun, but it was lot of, “You want us to sound like this?,” or “You want us to sound like that?” That’s essentially why I started engineering. We were so young and didn’t really know what we were doing. I thought maybe we could decide how we wanted to sound if we knew what we were doing.
Tell me about that studio experience with the engineer from WAM.
It was at the old WAM, in the Mission on Bryant [Street] in this giant building of studios. I remember the elevator wasn’t working and we had to go up all these stairs. It was such an amazing experience. It was the first time where we got to be in control of what we sounded like. Because it’s a school, the environment was very, “We’ll teach you what we’re doing, while we’re doing it.” We were so young, not even yet freshmen in high school. It was a nice start to studio life.
Your mixes have a fat and cracky snare sound a lot of times. At what point did you start to develop traits that make your mixes sound a certain way?
That was definitely a product of working at Tiny Telephone [Studio]. I go back to one of the first records I did, the Ball Earth [self-titled] album. It was a band of me and my friends, and I fully didn’t know what I was doing. I feel we were encouraged to misuse equipment and not do anything technically correct. It was very explorative. I remember when I first started using a [kick drum] beater mic. I don’t use bottom snare. All of the annoying high mid [frequencies] that are in the snare that I leave in there are probably from the beater mic. I remember being offended by it at first, but then being like, “Wait, no. I like this. I’ll leave it in.” It’s about not following rules.
We’re growing up in an era where everything is accessible on the internet. There are always suggestions to record a certain way. Do you ever feel inhibited to try ideas because of that?
Honestly, not really. Something turned me off about studio and gear culture as a young girl entering that world. It seemed the studio culture was very show-offy. “I want to show off everything I know, and that I know how to do everything right.” It was intimidating and it didn’t feel very welcoming. I think part of why I got into it was to break that down, and to realize that someone who knows how to do everything “technically correct” might not make the album that I want to listen to. Being able to be comfortable as an engineer felt more important to me than knowing everything. No judgment to gear people. I get it. Sometimes I like to talk about gear; nerding out on gear is fun. But there’s definitely a point where we’re not sharing cool information. We’re just listing the things that we know. I’d rather hear someone talk about a new trick they’ve discovered by misusing gear. I felt inspired reading about early Abbey Road/EMI Studios, when these pieces of gear were still fresh from the lab and no one knew how to use them yet. That’s where all the cool sounds came from, by not using it as it was intended. That excites me more than using it “right.”
Back then budgets were so much bigger. They could afford to be a bit more adventurous.
There was more money back then in the music industry. I have all these references growing up. Being trained at an analog studio, I have to trust my ears way more than “digitally.” I can’t see the wav files; I have to use my ears. That’s an important thing to carry into a digital studio now. If it sounds good to me, then there’s no need to change it. There have been times when I’m mic’ing an acoustic guitar, the mic falls down to their knee, I fix it, go back in the room, and it’s like, “It sounded better before! I’ll go put it back.”
You came up in an analog studio at Tiny. What was it like transitioning to a hybrid digital setup?
I was very hesitant to have only a digital studio, because I’d gotten so used to recording fully to tape. I miss that workflow a lot. It’s not even about the way it sounds at all. The workflow is so completely different. That said, I’m glad that I did tape first. Now I can bring some of what I learned from that into a digital environment, where I’m not just staring at the screen the whole time. There’s something inside of me still that’s like, “Don’t do 100 takes.” I’ll roll over takes so that I don’t have to sort through them later, which is nice. I get being tweaky on the computer. It’s fun sometimes. But that part is not appealing to me at all after working on tape. I definitely prefer old choices and commitment. Which I can still do on [Avid] Pro Tools. We have to have the willpower to not get tweaky. It’s nice to bring that workflow mentality into a digital studio. Then it’s nice to be able to utilize Pro Tools and Ableton [Live] for the quirks that they have. Especially now that I’m learning Ableton, there’re a lot of weird misuse of plug-ins that I wasn’t able to explore in an analog environment. That’s been fun!
With so many folks learning recording at home, how often have you had clients come to you with some aspect of an engineering background?
It happens a lot. Especially nowadays, where everyone does some form of home recording. All of my clients have at least used [Apple] GarageBand. Sometimes it’s annoying, and sometimes it’s great. Generally, people are very respectful. I’ve had clients who say, “I engineer, but I don’t want to engineer myself. I want to keep it separate.” Like, “I’m the creative right now,” versus, “I’m the engineer.” I totally get that. Sometimes I want to do that too. But I also like teaching my clients – if they don’t have as much experience in the studio – about what I’m doing as I do it. It’s fun to be collaborative on almost every level. I definitely prefer sessions where we’re comfortable spitting out ideas and turning knobs. I’m like, “Here. Go ahead and dub the [Lexicon] Prime Time on this track,” when they’ve never touched one before. That’s fun.
You’ve worked with Sasami. I was listening to that and thinking, “Holy shit, there’s so much going on.” What were sessions like with her?
One of the songs was something that she had already recorded for her [self-titled] album. She did an acoustic version of “Free” for the album, and then did the full band version with us [at Tiny Telephone]. That was fun, because it was like rebuilding a song that was already finished, in a different context. It was interesting working with her on that, because everything was fully demoed on GarageBand on her iPad. It was cool to see everything she had done electronically, including drums. She did finger tapping, or programming, for some of the guitar parts, bass lines, and drums. She had never heard it played as a real instrument, so it was fun to see that come to life.
Do you think there’s a danger of demo-itis more now than ever?
I see it all the time. It’s scary. That’s why a demo should just be an iPhone recording. There are a lot of people who get good at making demos and recording themselves, and I’m like, “You should just put that out, because you’re attached to it.” I’ve had clients come to me who send me the demo and say, “I like all the parts that are there. I like how they’re played and how they sound. I just want to get the real version of them.” I’m like, “Why? You like how it sounds!”
I know you were working at Tiny Telephone for a while. When did you have the realization you were ready to do your own thing?
It was recently. We [Danielle Goldsmith, Spencer Hartling, and Sami] built this studio, Wiggle World, in January . We’d worked at Tiny Telephone and made the decision to branch off and do our own thing, along with a few other engineers. There’s another studio [Altamira Sound] opening up near ours, with Rob Shelton, Carly Bond, James Riotto, and Andrew Maguire. They’re all Tiny people too. We all are doing different things, and it’s really good. At a certain point, working at one studio for a long, long time, you’ll get in the habit of doing everything one way. There’s a certain cap to your growth, and also how much you’re in charge of your own career. We’re all realizing that we’re ready to fly the coop and try doing things in different ways.
Do you think there’s a future as a staff engineer for younger folks who want to get into engineering by working at a studio traditionally, or do you think the future is pure independence at this point?
There will always be a need for larger studios. If a big studio has money, then people are going to want to go there and use the expensive gear. But, from what I see right now, there are so many people building out small studios like this one, which is very fun to work in. A lot of the bands I know in L.A. right now are younger and don’t want to go to big studios that are $1,000 per day. They would prefer a room with an iso booth like we have here [at Wiggle World]. It’s easy. It’s intimate. There’s less of an odd power dynamic, which is not necessary anymore. The feeling I remember having as a seventh grader going into a professional studio was [feeling] intimidated, scared, and kinda dumb. We were not in control of what the music we were making was. I feel people are waking up to how unnecessary that is. It feels very traditional; it’s not going to age well and it isn’t aging well. A lot of the music I listen to now, I know it was done in a small space or at someone’s house. People are just as happy with that, and that’s good.
What can you do to make artists not have all those feelings that you described when going to a professional studio?
It’s interesting, engineering and producing. It is in part a service industry. I remember they would always say that at WAM, “You’re serving a client and working for your client. They need to feel comfortable and accommodated.” But they don’t want to feel they have way more power than you, because that doesn’t necessarily make people feel comfortable either. It’s about patience and being open. Being open to ideas that aren’t traditionally considered correct. If my client has an idea that I’ve been told wouldn’t work, or that I don’t agree with, I wouldn’t necessarily fight it right away. Sometimes you should fight an idea if it really won’t work. But be open-minded, patient, and supportive. I know that doing a vocal take in front of someone you have hardly met before is not easy. It’s so vulnerable. Wiggle World is $200 a day for the room. It’s not like people feel super stressed and pressured to be spending every minute working. They’re not too afraid to make something that they’re going to want to potentially scrap later. Again, I feel we have to do that. Reading the room is a big part of this job. Getting used to that, and knowing how to do that! [laughs]