While receiving the Grammy for best hard rock performance, Dave Grohl thanked Nick Raskulinecz, calling him the "greatest rock producer around." Coming from an artist who's worked with Tape Op favorites like Tony Visconti, Steve Albini, Barrett Jones and Butch Vig, this was no small compliment. But who is this Raskulinecz character? And why haven't we heard of him before? The poster boy for hard work and persistence, Nick started as a bass player for the Knoxville rock-thrash group Hypertribe. The recording bug bit Nick early. In the late '80s he got his own gear and began cutting demos. The band moved to Los Angeles in search of national exposure. To pay the bills, Nick snagged a gofer job at Sound City Studios. Management and artists alike took notice of his enthusiasm and affable nature... He assumed more responsibility, earning engineering jobs and eventually serving as a producer's assistant. During his tenure at Sound City he worked with (and cooked for) the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Tom Petty, Danzig, Rancid, and longtime friends Superdrag. In the late '90s he met Dave Grohl and the Grammy countdown began. Since then, Nick has produced Fireball Ministry, Rufio, The Reunion Show, Motorhead's Lemmy, and Soil, to name a few. His latest efforts include recording Velvet Revolver, engineering the new Rancid CD, mixing PROBOT and producing Grohl's drumming for a Killing Joke album. We caught up with Nick during a rare moment off as he prepared to begin work on the new Ash album.
What made you want to shift from being an engineer to producing? How did it transpire? Was it gradual or sudden?
I kind of feel like I've always been a producer. Even when I started back in 1988 with my first 4-track. I did it to record my own band. I immediately started producing.
It had to have been a Tascam Porta 01 or Porta 02.
It was actually a Tascam 688, the 8-track model. I still have it and use it all the time.
So, out of the gate you had a predisposition towards arranging, guiding, and all those amorphous things producers do that is the glue for the whole project.
I always felt like I was a producer, but I needed to learn how to be an engineer.
Now that you've paid your dues as an engineer, do you feel that makes you a better producer?
Totally. Definitely. Because I understand the recording process and can communicate with both artists and engineers. An artist can describe to me how they want something to sound and I can do exactly what they want because I can engineer as well.
Can you give me an example when this has happened recently?
Actually, it happened today. I'm doing some mixing for Dave Grohl right now. He came in today on a mix I just did, and he's describing to me what he wants his drums to sound like. In my head I instantly knew what two pieces of gear I was going to hook together to do it with. I did it. He loved it. It was perfect, exactly what he wanted. So it was cool as the producer of the project to be able to do that. I spend a lot of years working on my engineering. I mean really, really focusing on my skills. Spending time on how to record different types of sounds. It's hard. Ask anybody who does this. It can be tough to make a whole recording sound good.
On the records you've done there seems to be a similarity among the bands' styles. Do you have to like the band's music to work on their project?
I have to like it. I can't put one hundred percent into something I don't like. I mean, I can't put a hundred percent into something I have to listen to for fifteen or sixteen hours a day! I have put myself in that position in the past [of not liking the material.] All that does is compromise the whole project. Maybe you think you can 'make something' out of it in the beginning, and sometimes you can, but usually it doesn't work that way. For me, if I don't get a vibe from something from the first time I listen to it, then I usually know that it's not going to work.
So, do you feel you should be a 'fifth Beatle' where you sort of participate and contribute to the sound and direction, or do you take the Albini approach, kind of like the Star Trek Prime Directive of "I do not interfere, I just translate the band's vision to tape?"
That's kind of a tough question. It kind of depends. For example, for a young band like The Reunion Show, I essentially joined the band for two and a half weeks. For a band like Foo Fighters, I don't have to go in and 'join' the way you would with a younger band. You don't need to be a member in the same way. Those guys have experience. They know how to make a record. They've done it before.
The Reunion Show was a whirlwind project [the album Kill Your Television].
The Reunion Show. I love that album. That's a good record to talk about, man. I mixed it all in two to two and a half days. It was a tornado! We spent twelve days recording that record. Drums, bass, vocals, everything was done that fast. Then I spent two and a half days mixing. We did it all in the same studio.
How do you keep your ears fresh in that kind of situation?
I listen really quiet. When I'm mixing, I mix for fifty minutes, and I take a ten-minute ear break. I only really crank it towards the end of my hour.
Do you calibrate the level to a certain dB or do you find a spot without measuring?
It varies. I mix in different rooms, and they are all different. Most times I look for that spot where things sit well in that particular room.
When you are mixing, do you do several versions of a mix, an up vocal, etc.?
I usually do two or three versions of a song. Never more than four because then there are too many decisions. I don't do a kick up .2 dB, snare down 1.5 dB mix like some of these guys. It's either up 1.5 dB or down 1.5 dB. I usually do a master, then a vocal up, a guitar up, and an instrumental. Otherwise too many decisions just gets everyone confused. You either nailed it or you didn't.
That record sounds very even. How did you mix at such a breakneck speed?
Well, there are two tricks to that. The first was I recorded the record the way I heard it in my head. I specifically knew I wasn't going to have a lot of time to mix. I went in knowing exactly how the end product was going to sound.
So, do you commit things like EQ and compression at the time of tracking or do you wait until the end?
I will do both, but I usually commit. I don't go wild with things that I know could be like that forever. I'm pretty mild on many effects. But I do like to make decisions. I like to commit.
You said you had two tricks to get you through that project?
The second thing was I didn't automate the mix. I mixed it all by hand. Automation is what takes forever. You spend hours — just spend hours — automating a mix that is ready to be printed. [laughs] But I constantly ride everything. I'll tape a pencil across faders, or use a coat hanger. I do whatever. I'll get the band involved. I'll make the drummer sit at the board and ride the snare fills. I'll get the bass player to ride his fills.
That's cool because who else knows better what's coming up in a song and where their instrument is going?
Exactly. When you record that fast, there is just no time for it. It enabled me to focus on the sound and crushing it instead of constantly worrying about all the moves I have to do. I get the whole band involved.
Is anything off limits for guitar recording? Will you use a Pod or a SansAmp device instead of an amp?
Well, I always print a direct a line from the Little Labs so I can go back and reamp later. I'm pretty much a fan of amps, though. I'm not too much a fan of simulators. There is something about getting the air. You know, that speaker moving the air. I think that's the key — well, that and really cranking the amp up. It even compresses the room. You get two or three half-stacks in the room, and they're all just raging and it compresses all the air, just creates the sound. Of course, it depends on the project. For example, on The Reunion Show, we didn't use big huge Marshall half-stacks. We used a little HIWATT and a Gibson SG with a P90 in it.
Do you have a favorite mic for the guitar work?
Well, I love the Neumann U47 FET. That's my favorite microphone.
Is there any piece of equipment that you just can't live without?
Well, there are only a few things in my arsenal that I can't work without. One of them is my Little Labs PCP, which I think is the greatest recording invention ever. It's a guitar splitter and reamp box. It's awesome. I could pretty much go in and work on any equipment, though. If it doesn't sound good, I won't use it. For example, the room I'm mixing in now has more outboard gear than I could possibly ever use. I only use things if I think it's necessary. If it needs a compressor I'll use one, otherwise I won't. I'm not one of those guys who puts a compressor on everything because I can. I only use it when I deem it's necessary. I think a lot of stuff is too compressed now days, anyway. Actually, I leave a lot of room for compression for the mastering person anyway.
You said you knew what the record would sound like when you started. How did you prepare to work with them or any band? Do you see them live? Do you sit in rehearsals? Listen to demos?
With The Reunion Show all I had was their demo. They sent me a demo. I thought it was pretty good. I heard potential in it so I called them. They were in New York and I was out here [Los Angeles] and I just couldn't go out and see them at a show. So I had them send me another demo. A couple of months later they sent me another demo. I told them to keep writing songs. I thought they were on the right track. A few months later I got another demo and I knew instantly they had done their homework. Instantly I heard it. In fact, there were two or three songs that would make the album. I heard [mimics guitar riff of the song "Television"]. I was like, 'That was killer — we have a record now.'
Do you have a band bring you a portfolio of songs and you cut down from there?
Yes, that is one thing that I really strive for with anybody. I want to hear everything. Every song, every demo. Keep writing all the way up to the last day of mixing. There are never too many songs. I like to go into records with twenty to twenty-five songs.
That sounds like it would be enough for half of a Guided by Voices' record.
[laughs] Well, it depends on the band. Some people write fifty songs, some only have fifteen. You know, but if you've got fifteen songs you're going to record all fifteen of them and then you're going to narrow that down to the best twelve. Then narrow that down to the best ten for the record, and you'll have two B-sides.
And that's where a fresh perspective helps a band.
Exactly. That's what a producer is supposed to do. You're the outside objective opinion. The band can't be objective — they're the ones who wrote the songs. The producer brings things to the attention of the band that they've missed, or things they've overlooked because they were too close.
Speaking of bringing news to a band, have you ever had to deliver a difficult message to a client or band member? How did you do it?
I think one of the toughest situations I've had to deal with as a producer was giving this one drummer feedback. I had to tell him that I was going to basically grid-edit his drum tracks. That's tough for drummers. You know, 'You're going to sound great when I'm done. It's not great now, but it will be when I'm done. It's either that or I'm going to have to bring in another drummer.' That was the hardest thing I had to do. I had to tell a guy he's not good enough to play on his own record, and, [that he] can play on his record, but I'm going to edit the hell out of it.
I would cry.
Well, it's tough. But that's part of the mentality of making a good record. Whatever it takes! No egos, no drama, no situations like, "It's about me." None of that. It's about making a great album. "And if what I'm doing isn't as great as it should be, then I'm going to let you [the producer] do it. And he did it and the record turned out amazing.
Who knows, he might have gone to the woodshed so next time that would never happen.
It made him a better drummer, because he sat with me the whole time I fixed it and I showed him what the problems were. For the first hour or so after our conversation, that guy hated my guts. But then he thought it over and he worked with me. At the end of the deal, he came up and shook my hand and thanked me.
That's kind of refreshing, because some producers are known to steamroll right over people who "get in the way."
I don't want to work that way. Some guys wouldn't have even told the drummer what they were going to do with his tracks. I'm not about being sneaky. I keep things in the open. I'm not into secrets when it involves a band's album. That involves years of their work. I've been in a band. I've tried to get a record deal. We spent years working on our stuff, and to do that and find out somebody else ended up playing on your record would be so frustrating. And a lot of people do that! But I'm not into that.
From an overall management perspective, are you in charge of the project's plan, budget, and time tracking? Or do you have someone else involved in that aspect?
No, I do all of that.
How do you track that? Do you do back of the envelope, top of your head, Microsoft Project software?
I'm a workbook freak. I get these big black spiral notebooks I get in art supply stores and I write everything down. I got about fifty or sixty of them for the past year or so. I usually start with my budget. I do a rough budget. I'll do three or four rough budgets on paper, then I'll throw that into the computer to hash it out. That way I can send it out to whoever needs to see it. But I usually do about three different budgets.
Is one average, one optimistic and one pessimistic?
One is the "This is what I would really love to do" budget. One is the "This is what we can probably afford" budget. And one is "This is as low as possible and [we can] still do the record" budget. I should say "This is the I'm-calling-in-favors" budget!
How do you set the right tone for a session?
I spend the first day getting sounds and getting everyone acquainted and just hanging out. We usually don't record that day. We usually just make people comfortable, let them go home, rest their ears and come back and hit it hard the next day. Because you can establish the flow of how the rest of the record is going to go. I'm obsessed with recording. I'm obsessed with music. And I do this because I love it. If my career dries up tomorrow I'll move back to Knoxville and start a demo studio. I'll record demos for the rest of my life. The whole reason I moved to L.A. was to get into the business. It took me seven years working six and seven days a week. Sometimes the jobs weren't what I wanted to do, but you have to learn. So my advice is keep recording, keep getting experience and it all will pay off.
So how did you meet Dave Grohl? How did that whole thing unfold?
I hooked up with Dave when I was assisting out at Sound City. The Foo Fighters came in to do a session. They needed an engineer. I was free, so I did the work with them. He and I got along and we became friends. We instantly hit it off. We kept in touch over the next few years. We have a lot of things in common. We are the same age, [we] like similar music, we grew up 500 miles apart. So when it came time to do their record, he called me. I think half of this is about being able to hang. The other half is about recording. But you've got to be able to hang out and make people comfortable and make the music sound great. I like this to be fun. I like to record everything in the control room that I can. I mean, outside of drums, I would do everything in the control room. When I'm done with drums everything else gets done in the control room. It makes it a hang. I spend the first few days decorating, moving stuff and vibing the whole thing out. I want that to be a cool experience.