In 1983 I was working in a nice 'pro' 24-track two inch studio recording music that I would never actually buy myself, and then I heard R.E.M.'s Murmur. When I heard that some guy named Mitch Easter recorded it on a 16-track in his garage, I quit my well-paying gig and bought a Fostex 1/4" 8-track and started recording bands that I liked in my friend's garage. (Actually, Chronic Town was done in the garage, Murmur was done mostly at Reflection Sound, a 'pro' studio) My studio eventually grew quite a bit, and I later met Larry Crane, Tape Op's editor and founder when I produced a few records for his band, Vomit Launch. It was kind of full circle then when I was able to meet Mitch last summer at his Fidelitorium studio; the coolest studio I've ever set foot in. I had the chance to chat with Mitch for an hour or two, which was a privilege but I was told that someone else was doing the interview, so I was only there to shoot photos. Ted Comerford, an engineer who works with Mitch at the Fidelitorium, was super busy and got the interview done a day or two before this issue went to the printer, and it showed up with no intro, so I have the honor of writing this. I just finished editing the interview because Larry's in Mexico, and I found it as inspiring as the first time I heard Murmur. So read on, and hopefully you'll be equally inspired. --John Baccigaluppi
Why on Earth did you decided to become a producer/engineer?
Mitch: My dad came home with a little Sony tape recorder in about '63 and I was entranced by it. Soon I was putting paper over the erase head for "overdubbing", running the tape backwards, etc. Despite what you can do with a computer nothing will probably ever be as much fun for me as these rude 'n' crude techniques.
When did you decide to do it as a 'career'?
I was alarmed by the fact that when I graduated from high school I couldn't just seamlessly slide into my proposed Rock Star career- nothing was going on. But a year or so earlier, Chris Stamey had bought one of the first Teac 2340s, which was a 1/4" 4-track with sync, so you could overdub. A breakthrough machine-installed in my basement, it allowed us brash teens to try to make records as opposed to just play in a band. It was really satisfying to build up a song with overdubs and I think what I understand about how all this stuff works came from the Teac Era, mostly. Naturally I thought the truly unlistenable results we got were pretty fine, and only lacked more tracks to be right up there with the heavy greats of the time. So during college I was trying to figure out a way to get some kind of studio going. The okay results we were getting on the Teac by this time (mainly due to the addition of the fabulous Tapco mixer, which had EQ!) convinced me that I might be able to avoid getting a real job if I got some kind of rock band-oriented place going. The notion of "producer" never occurred to me. I just wanted to record myself and also record other people to justify getting better equipment. I guess this was in '77, when I graduated from college. This was an exciting time in recording- megalith records were giving way to punk rock and quickie sessions as championed by people like Nick Lowe- you listened to those things and it seemed like fun as opposed to work. The words were better, it was more about guitars and there was a complete absence of mellow electric pianos! It seemed possible to "rock" again without being a total dumbass. Nothing against dumbass rock, but at the time I was more intrigued, recording-wise, with what would quickly become labeled "quirky". (Ugh.) Also, David Bowie's Low had come out around '76 or '77 and that record is still one of my all-time faves for its boldly odd sound and its attitude of "departure". I was always more interested in "messing around" than "perfecting"- these records suggested you could do that and people would listen to it. All inspiring to me as I contemplated my version of being in The Biz. Of course nowadays, the spectre of Total Perfection is more suffocating than ever, with equipment that pushes things ever more in that direction. Even if you're working in the "funny noises" department, I'm still struggling with the lengthy time frame that is standard for a commercial release. The emerging standards of the late 70's and early 80's looked good to me, though, so I actually tried to go for it. After a few false starts, the Drive-in studio got going in July of 1980, so I suppose that indicated that I had a "career."
Here's the obvious part of interviews that you will never escape: REM's Murmur is one the finest and timeless records ever made and there are a million interviews and books out there for those who are interested. However none that I have read cover production specifics. (Most likely because no one cares except people like me, you know, the nerds and geeks who read recording magazines.) For instance how did you get the amazing snare sound on "Radio Free Europe?"
Bill really wanted to play in the drum booth at Reflection. They had the definitive '70s booth down there which we affectionately called "The Tiki Hut"- a little sorta' octagonal thing with a lot of glass and a cedar shake pointy roof. It was pretty small and we had trouble...