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 [Tape Op #50], 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 to make the take better. I think we did do a couple of little edits here and there, but for the most part, the performances had to be nailed. He was the exact opposite of Tim in terms of energy. He basically sat on the couch and said, "Do it again," and that was a lot different. It takes a certain kind of musician that wants to work in that kind of environment. Even within my own band, I'd say only half the band was real into that, and the other half really wasn't so much. But the most important thing I learned from him was how to listen. Before, when I would do something, there were certain times I knew that it wasn't good. Then there were other times where he'd be going, "Don't you hear that? Don't you hear that?" And eventually, I did hear it. That's probably the biggest thing that's helped me recording other bands, is that I can hear now what has to be worked on while we're tracking in order to make the mix work for me. And I don't want to go in and fix people's drum parts or guitar parts or whatever. I don't want to auto-tune and do all that stuff. I just think you're supposed to be capturing the way the band sounds, not trying to make it sound like something else. So learning that from Jerry really helped me, because you try to get the best out of the players. That's the ultimate. When the players walk in [to the control room], and they say, "I didn't think I could that," or whatever, then you know you've probably reached the pinnacle of what that guy can do. That's all a record is supposed to be, a snapshot of how good the songs are, about how good the players are at that time. That's what I took from Jerry. Nick [Raskulinecz] worked with us on everything we did up until the last record. On the third record, he engineered it. The main thing I learned from Nick was patience. He just has this unique ability to know which buttons to push on which people to make them do their best. Some people don't really need to have their buttons pushed, some people are perfectionists and they want to do it right. Other people require a certain amount of coddling. And he was the master. Another thing I learned from Nick was that you mimic the producers and engineers that you work with. You take little bits and pieces from all those guys and develop your own style. He's gotten to work with some really great people, and so I've taken a lot of what Nick's done because I know where he's gotten it. Then there's Jerry and Tim, taking all those things into consideration, and I've have gone to a lot of studios and seen how people do things. I really believe Jerry thinks that mic'ing drums is a lost art, and he spends a lot of time on that. Of course, I kept a running diary of those whole sessions, so I know exactly what mic was used and what it ran through, in terms of EQ or compression. When I first started out, and didn't know what to do on an acoustic guitar, I would always go back and refer to those notes. You know, I might not have that particular mic, or I might not have had that compressor, or I might not have had this or that. But you can simulate it on a smaller scale, or a cheaper scale, I might say. At least you have a starting point. I did a session with Mitch Easter recently, another guy that has a really unique way of working. I walked in and saw how he mic'ed the drum kit and thought, "Why didn't I think of that? Why do the drums have to be huge stereo image all the time?" Then I sat down and listened to some more recently made records and realized that there aren't a lot of people doing the big stereo image drums anymore. So I've been real fortunate to be able to work with some good people who were willing to share some tricks.
Does your history of working in various studios help now that you are running one yourself?
Yeah, I find myself mimicking other studios that I've been to. Not so much knowing why they did what they did, but just being able to look at things and wonder, "What can you do in a cheap way that will give you the same effect, sonically or aesthetically?" Which I think are equally important. For a long time, my theory has been that studios are often the least conducive places to make music. A lot of the studios I've been in are like going to the dentists' office or something. If you're a young band and you're on the clock, paying by the hour, it can be excruciatingly painful. So I try to avoid that — there's no clocks in here. I don't want people to know what time it is. I'm glad the windows are covered, so you don't really have any sense of what time it is. You don't really know how long you've been working on this guitar track or whatever, and trying to get it right. Obviously, quality is better than quantity, but you've got to get done what you've got to get done.
Your present situation came about through a strange confluence of timing. Exactly how did things fall into place?
I never thought I'd be making a living doing this. I knew that, at the very least, Superdrag was going to be taking a break for a while, and I didn't really know what I was going to be doing during that break. But I never really thought, "Gee, I'll be making a living at this." Then it was obvious that Superdrag was going to take a really long break, and maybe not ever play again. And I needed to start wondering about how I was going to make a living. I really thought, too, that after ten years of being my own boss and making music for a living that I really wanted to keep doing that. I didn't think I was going to get a whole lot of offers as a drummer. But I knew that I had all these different projects going. So I wondered if I could make a living at that, and that was about the time that these folks [the Studio 613 owners] called. I was planning on moving up [to the D.C. area] and being a runner at a studio up in Virginia and going through the whole process. I was thinking to myself that for somebody who's 37 years old, it's awful late to be starting a brand new career. When this thing came about, it was real simple. I could go somewhere and start learning Pro Tools and the whole nine yards of modern studio work from the ground floor up, or I could go back and start recording bands immediately. So it was a pretty easy decision for me, but I had to check with my wife, because that meant she was going to have to quit her job and move to Tennessee. We had to talk about it, but she was game. We came back and started trying. But it's really been pretty easy. It's been a natural progression.
How has the Superdrag connection helped you line up work for the studio?
Those last couple of records that we did here in town, I didn't think they sounded particularly good but apparently there are a lot of people out there who did. I guess they figure that, if you come and work with the guy who worked on those records, in the place where he worked on it, it will sound similar, which is not true. I think great bands make great records, not that great producers make great records or great engineers make great records. The songs have to be there and players have to be there and the gear has to be there. If any one of those things is missing, you can't duplicate that sound. But that has opened up a lot of doors in terms of... well, it would be hard to run a studio the way I want to with just Knoxville bands. So, it's really helped get a lot of other bands from out of town in and it keeps me working all the time. You know, having a place for them to stay and all that stuff, where it doesn't cost money, they don't have to get motel rooms when they come to town, that's another added plus. That's the kind of stuff that I've learned from being in a band and going to studios. Those are things I wanted to build into the whole arrangement. It's like when I was recording the Put-Outs, they slept on the floor [at the studio], and whoever was awake was recording. We did that record in no time. It took longer to mix it and finish it, because part of it was done in Baltimore and work schedules and stuff. Luckily I don't require a lot of sleep. I mean, once a record is over, I can crash for a day and get right back at it. While I'm doing it, I like just getting started and trying to get it done. I don't think a lot people do it that way any more, but I think a lot of people are willing to forego the Pro Tools and the perfection to have the opportunity to sort of get into this guerilla record making, making a record for as little money as possible that will stand up the other records out there that people spent large amounts of money and time to make. That's the difference between me and a great deal of the other guys in this general area, that there is no clock. A day is however long the band wants to work. You can get a lot of work done in a short amount of time, but it's quality, focused work. There's no outside world once you come in here. There's just here.
How much of your approach is influenced by gear, or the lack thereof?
Well, the lack thereof is a big one, because whether it's a record that a band brings in [for reference] or it's a sound that you've heard before that you want to get again, trying to simulate something when you don't have the gear sometimes leads you down some really interesting roads. And other times it will take you down roads where you just have to stop. Like, at some point, you have to say, "What else can we do?" But I think there have only been one or two cases where I gave up on something because I couldn't figure it out. For the most part, there's always more than one way to skin the cat. Working in this digital medium, with the [Alesis] HD24, there are a lot of limitations, but there are always ways around it. You can always pull out one of your tape machines, your 8-track machine or your 8-track cassette, if you need to do some backwards parts, and just do it like everyone does when they're trying to figure it out on their 4-track. It's been widely talked about, how The Beatles worked with their limitations and how that's what makes those records so great. And the engineering and the inventing that went on early on, that's what makes those records so interesting. So now, I think the sky's the limit with all the technologies out there.
You seemed to have developed a real sense of community at Studio 613. Was that your plan all along?
It was very accidental. I think there's just this undercurrent of cooperation because it can be so hard to make records. And everybody who works here knows how hard that is. It goes back to the trust issue. Do you feel like you can leave your gear, or loan somebody your gear, because (a) nothing's going to happen to it, and (b) it'll end up on somebody's record? And that's pretty cool itself. It goes back to that idea of doing the best with what you've got. If a guy walks in with a guitar and an amp and says he wants to get a certain sound, and you may try and not be able to get it, it's nice to be able to call somebody on the phone who has either the gear or the expertise to do it. And it leads to reduced rates for some people who've been so nice to loan us gear or something. But if you're going to be involved in a business in a community, then that community spirit ought to be there. People come by a lot of times, because right now, we're located near where a lot of musicians live. It's close to where the music scene in Knoxville is. It's not off the beaten path, it's smack dab in the middle. It's been a real neat thing.