Kim Deal is the founder and frontwoman of The Breeders, whose landmark album Last Splash turned 30 in 2023. She also spent quite some time playing bass and lending vocals to The Pixies, but she's a massive creative talent in her own right, self-taught and scrappy (before she could even hit the record button, she had to learn to solder cables). With her own inimitable aesthetic as a songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer, Deal continues to make her mark on modern music. Additionally, she continues to grow in her understanding of audio techniques, now effectively engineering herself as she has been recording remotely since the more locked down days of the pandemic. Tape Op chatted with Deal over Zoom, her presence animated and theatrical, as she walked us through her continued path forward, despite all of the changing technologies and global disruptions along the way.

Let's start with your relationship to recording gear.

I started with a push button – the cassette comes out, that sort of thing. This was like, sevs ['70s], so the next thing was the TEAC [Tascam] 38, the 1/2-inch, 8-track. My dad was a physicist. My brother's the one who really helped me with making my own cables; grabbing a bag of tips and soldering [them] on. I didn't want to waste money. We were in Dayton, Ohio – Huber Heights. There was no huge Guitar Center, or someplace where we could go to buy cables this long [gestures] and 30 to a pack. There was no internet or anything, so we'd make our own. So, the first idea of wanting to do my own recording turned into this fucking soldering, but I loved it anyway. It was so fun, but it's a lot. And then [came] the MXR Thirty-One Band EQ. I was a novice recorder then, and my friend – or one of his engineering friends – suggested, "It's not even going to work right," unless I have a patch bay. But I was just sitting there looking at all the holes and thinking, "I just want to come up with some workshopping ideas and make some cool sounding shit." I don't think I ever plugged one thing into that patch bay. I wouldn't even... how am I going to find it? Nobody said anything about labeling or anything. It's just a piece of metal with holes, so [many that] I'll never be able to follow where the cords I just made are going! Anyway, I had that going for a while. But then, always what happens is whenever I've got a good idea, I want a little bit of a recording of it. I get into the recording, I think it could be better if I add this pedal or whatever, then all of a sudden, I've got this fucking bullshit system where it's too much recording shit. Now, whenever I want to add something, it's too much, so I just pull it all aside again. So, then I started doing the 4-tracks. Guided by Voices [Tape Op #6], in Dayton. It was in the early '90s when I saw the 4-tracks. I don't remember seeing them around in the '80s. I was just on my 1/2-inch reel-to-reel. I got really stuck in those for quite a while; I liked that very much. But I was never good at it. Tobin Sprout [#20] from Guided by Voices made some pretty good sounding recordings on 4-track, but I never could. I didn’t want to know about gain; I just wanted this thing to sound cool. "Oh, look. The gain stage is fucked up. Boy, doesn't that sound good! Now I need to do a dub mix on 2-track, because I want to add some stuff. And now it's just like [makes distortion noises]. Okay. Well, I guess I'll have to start over again." So, it goes on like that. And then I had my bout with the [Tascam] 388s, which are ridiculous. My friend, Chris Ivan, in Dayton is my tube guy. I asked him, "Can you fix my 388?" And he said, "Ah, Kim, now that's consumer grade." One motor does both of the drives. It's always breaking. So, I did have a bout with some 388s, but then I went to the 16-track Tascam [MSR-16] 1/2-inch. I've got that now.

We would try to do demos in my house in Dayton on this. I had the machine upstairs, with the snake all the way down the steps from the second to the first floor, going into the bathroom through the laundry chute, from the first floor into the basement, where we can plug in the microphones and rehearse. We can actually get a demo. We were doing it on 4-track, but you don't get a sense of it. I thought, "Maybe we can make it sound good," but I never could. But it was enough to think, "This could be a good sounding song. This drum pattern is good, and it sounds cool. Then we can go someplace…" I thought about [Steve] Albini's [#10, #24, #87] studio being just five hours away. But then Covid hit, and the lockdown came. There's a video of Steve powering down [his studio], Electrical Audio, so there was none of that. I like to go to tape. Rock drums sound better on tape. I did have an Oberheim DX [drum] machine. That was one of the first things I had in the '80s. I always was half embarrassed by it. But then I found out Big Black [Steve Albini's old band] were using this really dorky [drum] machine and making it sound so amazingly cool. I just think, "Why didn't I think to do it in a cool way?" I always thought, "This is stupid. I'm doing stupid stuff." And then they take basically the same thing and make it sound really cool – same thing with Guided By Voices, from Ohio. I was like, "Dayton, blegh." But then I come back and [Robert Pollard] names his publishing company Needmore Songs, which is hilarious, [being] from Dayton, because Needmore Road is a big road there.

That difference in confidence in what you're doing, and your commitment to it.

Without having the pre-expectation of "this is dorky," which I guess is a different way to say confidence. But I was confident [that] it was stupid. [laughter]

That's a little different from confidence in yourself to make something cool, being like, "Yeah, I'm above the technology that I have access to."

Most of the time, I am! But [not] in these two cases – those are the only ones I can think of actually. Because they're talented, and they were able to do stuff with this [technology] that was really good. I'm not saying I wasn't, or I couldn't do it good. But I just think it was pretty genius they did it like that. That's pretty cool. I wouldn't have thought of it. Anyway – all that crappy gear – people were doing that, I guess. But in Ohio, where we make our own cords and we solder our own tips, any feedback at all probably would be the wrong sound because I was a novice. There was a monitor guy for The Pixies, Ben Mumphrey, in '04 or something like that. [Hurricane] Katrina hit, and his home base was in New Orleans. I was out doing stuff, and I said, "Hey, if you want to stay at my house in Ohio, you're welcome to." He rode out the flood in the place where The Breeders rehearse. He said, "You should get a Pro Tools unit." I'm not good with computers, but he got it, and I thought it would be good – I didn't think I'd be good. I thought I could maybe use it, but I didn't really have a vibe with it. But anyway, go to 2020, and he came out for something else, and he said, "Let's set up Pro Tools. It's so different now. Everything is there in the drop down – you don't have to memorize any prompts or anything. It's a subscription; everything is on your laptop. You don't have to have a separate tower station [computer]." So, I'm now on Pro Tools and he's on FaceTime [with me]. I have my little mouse, and I'm going, "How do I hit that channel that I want to mute?" [Smacks table] "That little M right there?! You mean if I want to mute that, I have to hit the… M?! Wait a second. Hold on. Let me hit the... M! Muted!" I'm just railing at him, "You're fucking kidding me." Because I'm used to at least having faders and slide things.

Right. Yeah.

I've gotten pretty proficient at that. Not really great, but good enough to pull up things and record. So, he's in New Orleans through this whole time, and I've got all my gear, so I'm recording. We're talking, and I'm just like [mimes recording setup] "Okay, I think I'm going to try to bi-amp this. So, how was your day?" I'm setting up a couple of microphones, getting my levels. For a while we used [Avid Cloud Collaboration], and that worked for a little bit. By the time I had everything hooked up, did my little guitar part, sent it to him, stood up, put my guitar down, he came back and goes, "Yeah, that sounds good."

There you go! Is that how you did the seven-inch project that you were doing?

No, the seven-inches were all analog. I even went to Ryan Smith at Sterling [Sound]. I was still trying to find places where I could take my tape and go directly to the plate – cut the lacquer without any [digital] file at all. A very small amount of people do that. At Sterling, it's like, "Argh. Okay, let me get out the ball bearings to delay the cutter head." It's only for seven-inches anyway. At one point, I'm just like, "Why am I fucking worried about all this fucking analog detail? It's going to a fucking seven-inch. What the fuck am I doing?"

It was what you knew!

It was horrible. When The Breeders started out in Dayton, when we first started doing our demos, the studio in town had a Hi8 digital tape. And I'm just like, "This is not a good sound at all." They were telling me how this is a better, cleaner sound. This is '92. So, 50,000 sampling rate. But what they don't say is if the sample sounds shitty, you get 50,000 shitty samples and you're going to sound like shit. It was horrible sounding. Honestly. I was happy to do demos there. It's just when somebody tells me it sounds good, and it doesn't, I was like, "Digital sucks!"

[laughs] Yeah.

Because it sucked back then. It didn't sound good. Now I can't even tell the difference. Maybe. I mean, I can't do a good drum recording in my basement. I don't have a heavy-duty converter to make it beautifully pristine. I have an old Neve, but that's not going to do anything for my conversions. And the room is no good anyway; it's a basement. So, I would [still] go someplace to record drums. Why not go to Albini's? He's five hours away.

The Pro Tools you've been doing: Is that new music that has yet to come out?

My first digital [experience] was Greg Norman from Electrical Audio [Tape Op #87]. The Breeders were working on All Nerve, and I went up to Electrical. I had my tapes, and he pulled them up into Studio B and we were listening to them. I was liking most of them. Then I'm like, "Can I re-sing this?" Greg said, "Yeah, but we're out of tracks. Do you want me to transfer them onto digital? I can transfer onto digital. You don't have to lose anything." Now we had a transfer; that was my gateway. I was asking Greg – this is like 2016 or 2017 – and he's like, "I can't tell the difference anymore. It's gotten so good." I think he was saying from a high-res audio file, compared to off the tape. Anyway, there was no question about me recording onto digital, it was a question of always recording on tape and transferring it onto digital so as to not have to throw anything away. So, that right there was my gateway drug. But it's still all analog recording at this point.

I see.

So, now all the good shit is on digital, right? For All Nerve not all the songs were like that; some of them were all analog, and they stayed that way 'til they went to mix, but some of them were in a file. So, All Nerve's now in a digital world. Period. It just is. I got a name of a guy who mixes in digital. We had to take all the tapes, drive up to Brooklyn with Matt Boynton, and he transferred it to high res. Now we were in his Pro Tools, and that's how we mixed. So, if All Nerve is mixed in Pro Tools, now why not just take the file and go right into lacquer? Bob Weston [Tape Op #18, #86] is the one who did the lacquer master. All Nerve is the first thing I ever did that didn't have a direct cut. Then, I wanted to collaborate with somebody overseas and I had my 4-track; these pieces of audio tape. There was no way I can send them audio clips. My idea was to create these cool sounds, then collect them in digital so I can email them or whatever. That was the only reason why I wanted Pro Tools, and then everything locked down. Then Ben Mumphrey flew back to New Orleans, and it was like, "Okay, how do I do this?" He gave me these instructions and I wrote them down; they're in a little red folder. "Command Shift K." Now I can actually do stuff on Pro Tools.

Yeah. So, you're engineering yourself, which you've been doing, but continuing in a new way.


Besides soldering your own cables, what other technical skills have come in handy for you?

Honestly, a lot of it is like Euchre [the card game] for me. Somebody will tell me how to play Euchre one Friday evening, and I'll have a great time all night long. Next weekend, they want me to play Euchre and I'll have no idea what the rules are and how the games go. Weirdly, I used to work in a biomedical laboratory. I had a two-year medical laboratory technician degree, where I would look into a microscope and I would count sperm – count double heads, no tail, and slow swimmers. There was a time when I was doing a culture counter of a little old lady, who evidently had had a very hard blood draw. There was only [a little bit of] blood and there was a big machine; I spaced out, hit the wrong button on the machine, and it added water. That meant that the sample was ruined. I had to contact the old woman, tell [her] that I ruined the sample, and that we were going to have to redraw it. There are moments like that, when I'm just wrong and I don't get it and I've made a mistake. That's a technical moment. High degree of technical expertise right there, to be able to say, "I've done something wrong,” as well as admitting that it needs to be fixed. And that is what should show up in a recording studio.

People don't know how to admit faults, and they don't know how to apologize.

At the time, I don't even want an apology. I've got work to do, and I need to get it done. I need to know what I need to do to get the work done. It helps me to know: Can I keep any of that? For instance, you're working as an engineer in a house engineering studio, and you say there's no compression on something, and I want to do it without compression, but you've got compression on. That, technically, is wrong. That's a technical skill: To be able to listen. A lot of times, they think they have a better idea and they're helping, but they're being additive. When there are things like that happening, that can be extremely confusing. And another good technical skill for anybody in the studio: Keep your fucking mouth shut and engineer. That's number one, I think. I bet Albini would even say that's number one. That, and make me a good coffee.

Stay out of the way. There's audio happening.

Yeah, be quiet. People are thinking and talking. Even when nobody's talking, people are still thinking about what they just heard.

The etiquette and communication pieces are so important.

Yes, that's a big one.

I love that answer.

Yeah, it's true too, isn't it? I mean, especially about the technical skill. If you don't know something, or even if you put the compression on and I had asked you not to, just say, "Yeah, I put it back on," and then just turn it off. That's fine. "Yeah, I thought it sounded better, so I kicked it back on." That's fine.

That's a great answer. A wise answer.

Yeah, thank you.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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