Don Coffey Jr. admits that he stumbled onto his career as a studio engineer by accident. From the early 1990s until last year, the 37-year-old native of Knoxville, Tennessee, was the drummer and driving energy of Superdrag, a popular rock band who tasted a bit of success with "Sucked Out," the single and video from their 1996 Elektra release, Regretfully Yours, that garnered considerable MTV airplay. After a more sonically adventurous, but less commercially successful second album, Head Trip in Every Key, the band and label split and Superdrag continued with the independent Arena Rock Recording Company label. Superdrag's self-reliant approach was crucial to Coffey's future in recording, as the band took their consolation prize money from Elektra and invested in recording gear (three Tascam DA88s, a Mackie board and Yamaha monitors). Their next two releases were largely recorded in their rehearsal space, dubbed Stealth Studio. There Coffey started learning the basics while expanding on the information he'd gleaned from looking over the shoulders of he pros who'd produced Superdrag's major label discs, Tim O'Heir (Regretfully...) and Jerry Finn (Head Trip...).
Another element in Coffey's development was band friend Nick Raskulinecz, another Knoxvillian who assisted on the first two records before co-producing and engineering In the Valley of Dying Stars, the band's first full-length disc for Arena Rock. In the time since, Raskulinecz has relocated to the West Coast and won a Grammy for his work with the Foo Fighters. By the time of the band's swan song, 2002's Last Call for Vitriol, Coffey, who'd been using the Stealth setup to record various friends and acquaintances during breaks from Superdrag's relentless touring schedule, was sharing the engineer's chair. Although that experience nearly cured Coffey of his interest in recording ("I found recording your own band isn't nearly as much fun as recording somebody else's"), it ultimately led to his current situation, running Studio 613, a 24-track digital operation in the same building with Stealth.
During the summer of 2003, Superdrag called it quits and Coffey was left to contemplate his future when Studio 613 owners Ron Tipton and Gail Meglitsch approached him about trying to make a go of their studio. Coffey, who had planned to move to the D.C. area to live with future wife Kym, mulled it over and took Tipton and Meglitsch up on their offer. Since then, Coffey has been working constantly, recording a variety of artists, mostly low budget affairs. Most of his clients at 613 come to Knoxville because of Coffey's Superdrag connection. Bands such as San Francisco's Sci Fi Love Story, Maryland's the Put-Outs, Ohio's Dutch Rub and Rocket to Mars, and Virginia's Hoover's G- String (as well as locals such as Leslie Woods and fellow Superdragger/ex-V- Roy Mic Harrison) appreciate the affordable rates at 613, but also Coffey's engineering abilities, arrangement insight and creative approach to overdubbing, all gleaned from his decade-long experience with Superdrag.
While the studio has somewhat limited equipment ("just the nuts and bolts of making records," Coffey claims), Coffey is dedicated to helping bands make the best records they can with whatever time and money they have to work with. "Guerrilla recording" is what he calls it. The studio even has a small apartment next door that allows the artists recording to stay on the premises and stay focused on the project at hand. Coffey has also fostered a true sense of community at the studio, where local musicians are likely to drop in anytime to hang out, loan visiting artists gear or sit in to add a part. Thanks to this approach, 613 has truly become part of the local music scene.
How did you wind up in the recording business?
I always dabbled in [recording]. We started out on 4- tracks, then we did that [Fabulous 8-Track Sounds of Superdrag EP] with Nick [Raskulinecz], and that's when I really got into it. I was like, "Well, if you've got one of these machines, anybody can do this," you know. But it wasn't until the last Superdrag record that I thought about it as a career move. All the other stuff was just for fun, and even when I recorded other bands, it was just for fun. When we did that last record, at the end of it, I said I'd never do it again. What left a weird taste in my mouth at the end of it was that I knew every track of the record and was so super-attached to every little part of it that it was hard to turn it over at the mix stage. And that mix thing, that was fucking terrible, and by the end of it, we spent a really long time and had to remix the whole record. We had to start all over after we were about 70 percent done.
You produced a handful of records, including the Faults [a short-lived band featuring three-fourths of the V- Roys, a popular alt-country band from Knoxville] while Superdrag was still going. How did you get into that?
When we were working on the third Superdrag record, we'd bought these DA88s and a Mackie console. It was always here [in Superdrag's rehearsal space], and nobody ever used it. So I always looked at those situations as opportunities to learn. But I wasn't the only engineer on the Faults record. In fact, I sorta stood in the background. We rented a bunch of stuff out of Nashville, because we were trying to do it basically the same way we did the third Superdrag record. We'd rented a bunch of stuff in Nashville, so I just looked at that list and I rented it all over again for the Faults record. I didn't feel totally comfortable [as an engineer], and they had some people they wanted to work with, so those guys came to Knoxville and I just sort of stood in the background. It was more of a producer thing instead of an engineer thing. I wasn't doing the hands-on part. I did some of the mic placement, but that was about it.
How did the various producers and engineers Superdrag recorded with influence you?
On the first Superdrag record, Tim O'Heir produced it, and he had a lot of energy. He was fun to record with. He had a lot of really great ideas for arrangement, a lot of really great ideas for percussion, and he liked to do a lot of overdubs, and we were way into that. So for that first record, what I walked away with was that, as a member of the band, we really needed to work on our arrangements. Tim was responsible for that, as well as all the percussion ideas and the way to go about overdubbing. On that record, all the rhythm stuff was tracked live, which never happened again. That was really difficult for us, as a band, on our first record. It took a really long time to get the right performances. But the overdubbing part, especially [the guitars], when we got into different guitars and different sounds and different mics for different amps and all that stuff — that was a really cool learning experience. Then, with Jerry Finn, he wanted absolute perfection in the performances. And [I learned] how that translated into the mix later. I don't think a lot of people understand that there's mixing and then there's fixing. But if you get the performances right — or you're going to use Pro Tools and fix the performances then — eventually you can get everything to have its own sonic space in the mix. The performances have to be real tight, especially the drum tracks, they have to pretty flawless. Obviously, there are ways to make it completely flawless in Pro Tools. Even on tape, you can make edits and move things around...