Over the last few years, I've seen TJ's name show up repeatedly on some of my favorite artist's albums: Wilco, Sonic Youth, Beth Orton, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, Loose Fur, The Rapture, White Magic, Steely Dan, Joanna Newsom, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Hold Steady and The Killers (with Lou Reed) — they've all been graced with TJ's fine ears and (often) old-school techniques. But who the hell is this guy? I kept getting the same response, "I don't know much about him, but I hear he's been real sick." When I was finally able to track him down at NYC's legendary Sear Sound [Walter Sear, see Tape Op issue #41], I found an instantly likable guy who was indeed on the mend after a nasty illness. We spent the day talking about his learning the ropes in one of the world's most respected studios, keeping healthy in what can be a chaotic industry and how a sense of humor and a simple signal chain are really all a good engineer needs...
How'd you get your start?
I went to school, and then I went to both Chung King and Skyline Studios. I figured out that you have to bust your ass. One of my first sessions was with Jack Douglas and Jay Messina. They were making a Local H record and they had a lot of shit going on. At night I would take really close notes, use all the gear, then make sure everything was perfect. The next day when they came in, they didn't know — they'd just start mixing. I'm like, "I just spent all night long with your gear. I'm gonna go pass out now." If I heard my name I'd just pop up and do stuff.
You came to Sear Sound with Steely Dan?
They would come in to do some work at Sear Sound. I was an assistant at Skyline and they had invited me over. Walter hired me the next day as an engineer. It was November 2001.
Can you tell me about the transition from being an assistant on Wilco's A Ghost Is Born to being the engineer on their Sky Blue Sky?
When they started Sky Blue Sky, I was in the middle of something with John Agnello, and Wilco wanted me for two days. I wasn't really nervous because [I thought] it was a demo recording, or a rehearsal. It was an easy transition. We were friends and we would hang out and barbecue on the weekends.
Sky Blue Sky was tracked live. There's just the right amount of room sound.
There were a lot of [Shure SM]57s on almost everything. We had a [Neumann] U87 but it didn't sound good anywhere, so I left it in the corner. With the SM57s, there was a little bit of bleed in everything. I was monitoring with Shure [SE 420] isolation headphones and I could walk around them and be in the process. I'd solo everything — I would go out to the drums and move the mic to where it sounded perfect. It took a couple of days to move all the close mics around to just the right spots. We spent a lot more time changing guitars. I remember on one song, John Stirratt's bass didn't sound quite right. I was moving things and it was getting louder as opposed to me finding out what sounded right. John said, "I need to change my bass," and he changes his bass and sure enough that was it. I didn't even have to touch a single knob.
What was the signal chain for the bass?
The bass was a DI and an amp. A [Shure] Beta 52 into an API 512 [preamp]. The DI went to a 512, and then into an [Empirical Labs] Distressor.
So you were actually compressing to tape?
Everything had a little bit of compression on it, but just a little bit. [Universal Audio] LA-3s, [dbx] 160s, [Manley] Vari-Mu on the organ and a [Universal Audio] 1176 on the piano. I would just compress stuff a tiny bit, because it would glue things to tape much better.
Was it mostly API preamps on that record?
There were a ton of APIs that covered the drums and the bass. There were two Daking [Mic-Pre/EQ]s, which were on Jeff [Tweedy] and Nels [Cline]'s guitars. Vocals were John Hardy's [M-1 Mic Preamps], maybe? It was all direct patches — there was no bussing involved.
Walter Sear [Sear Sound's owner] seems like he's got a pretty strict paradigm for the way he works. Do you take that "Sear Ethic" with you wherever you go?
To an extent. Even when I'm at Sear Sound I'm able to loosen up. When I first started here he came in, in the middle of a tracking session. The Fairchild [compressor] was way up and he said, "You can't do that." But a year later, I had one [Fairchild] going into the next, then into the next and into the next, and he said, "That sounds good!" He taught me and he wanted me to learn things right, because he does have a lot of ethics. And even when I would go work somewhere else, he would remind me of what I represent.
The Stephen Malkmus record [Real Emotional Trash] was done at SnowGhost Music [Whitefish, Montana]? What was that like?
That was a weird studio. The setup there was really, really problematic — I got hives. We're in this kid's house — it was basically his living room. He had TV projectors throughout the whole studio. He had lighting scenes — you'd hit a button, and the whole scene would change. To change the room temperature, you had to go online, to an FTP! I couldn't get anything to work right! On this long song ["Real Emotional Trash"] the tape was shedding. We're recording it and the tape is pulling — RMG [International] tape from Holland. We had to use acetone to clean the heads.
That's a ten-minute song!
I know! I think that's when my first hives popped up. The problem was the RMG — it wasn't even the tape machine. I remember at one point thinking, "The azimuth is out." They were cleaning [the heads] like crazy, so I'm thinking, "Well, that could knock the azimuth out." We got everything into Pro Tools, and returned all the reels to RMG. After that disaster in Montana I was so lonely, you know? I didn't know where to go, who to call or what to do. It was hot and I'd gotten a brand new itch, which I'd never known before. [laughter]
That album kind of sounds like that. Like a fun, chaotic mess.
It was pretty confusing. But it wasn't an all-bad experience. We had a really good time. We met in Chicago — me, Joanna [Bolme] and Steve [Malkmus]. We got really focused there doing overdubs. There was this one song, "Out Of Reaches," and her bass sounded so great but we wanted to do a fix on it. We were making this fix and all of a sudden the levels were off. This was the third machine we were on and I'm like, "What is going on?" I'm checking her pedals and I'm turning the knobs, everything is exactly as it was marked, so we must have screwed up with one of the punches. So we were like, "Okay, we'll just re-do the whole track later." So that was a bummer, because we were patching holes into holes. In Montana we'd been creating these holes, so later on, down the road, we're thinking, "Well, that's why that part's weird. We did it on tape, and it did that thing that it had been doing." We could have done the whole album here [at Sear Sound], with the right gear, in the right studio, in a way shorter amount of time and it probably would have been more what they wanted.
What's your Jim O'Rourke connection? Is there anything in particular that you've learned from him?
I met him on Wilco's A Ghost is Born record. That was the first time I had met those guys — I was really excited to be working with them. I had just gotten off a nine month D'Angelo session. Jim came in one day and I was assisting — we became friends. We moved the Wilco record to Sear, recorded some things and spent quite a bit of time mixing it. We worked around the clock.
Has he been a mentor to you?
He has. He and a couple of other people: Walter Sear, Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, John Agnello and Alan Moulder. I liked some of Alan's records so much when I was a kid that when I finally met him I took the chance to really chew his ear off. I must have annoyed him!
Is there anything in particular you've learned from Jim?
He mixes differently than a lot of people. He doesn't EQ it a lot. He'll make things work with only faders, which is really amazing. The little red bar [the board's automation RAM display] is totally maxed out, because the faders are moving so much. The EQ will barely be on, maybe a filter and that's it. I think it's just how he hears music.
He must be getting the right sound at the source?
I think that's why he's worked at Sear so much, because everything was recorded right. You don't have any creative outlet if you're fixing things in the mix all the time. I'm pretty sure that's why he liked me, on top of the humor, is that I recorded things the way he wanted them. He didn't have to touch anything. Like the Beth Orton record [Comfort of Strangers], he didn't have to do anything to mix it except move the faders a lot. We didn't have to EQ anything.
The bass guitar on the Beth Orton record is fantastic! It really has its own identity throughout the whole album.
It's an [Electro-Voice] RE20, through one of the Neves and then into the Teletronix [LA-2A], with probably a dB [of compression]. No fader involved. And Jim probably had the [bass's] tone knob turned all the way down.
It is kind of the "Jim O'Rourke" bass sound.
A lot of that magic had to do with him playing and mixing it — knowing exactly where to move the fader.
Comfort of Strangers sounds like a Jim O'Rourke record with her voice.
Totally! Well, that's what it was all about: her voice and the take. Her vocals were live on every track. Jim was sitting [right outside the control room], and then [drummer] Tim [Barnes] was facing her, the usual setup. On one song, maybe "Shopping Trolley", she left the door open and the drums were blasting into the room and into her mic. There was a huge amount of drum bleed and it got semi-distorted from the acoustics of the room — it sounded great. I was thinking we would have to redo it with the door closed, but everyone liked it. Everything was about her vocals that on that record.
Every instrument on that record has a very defined presence, and it all just blends together so seamlessly.
Some things on that had no EQ and no compression. They actually mastered it with no EQ. The sound of that record is great — that's as realistic and hi-fi as you could get. A lot of that was into the mic pre to tape. It was a simple set up and they just played. I think the three of them had rehearsed a couple of times. Jim mixed it and it didn't take him long. That's a pretty great record — I've gotten more compliments on that than anything I've ever done. We all had a really good time on that one.
Tell me about Sonic Youth's Rather Ripped sessions.
One of the first songs tracked here was "Pink Steam." I heard the demo for it and I remember thinking, "That song's amazing." They came here and tracked it the first day with four others. They just blew it out. The second week they did three songs, and those turned into "Reena", "Jams Run Free" and "Or."
Was a lot of it live?
It was live, but a lot of the time, Lee [Ranaldo] would take things back to their studio and do his parts there — maybe he hadn't learned the song as much. Thurston [Moore] didn't do his vocals live — he would do cues and stuff. John [Agnello] came to mix it. That was a fun, easy session, but it was also one of my most nervous sessions. When I was growing up, they were my favorite band. I remember meeting with them, to find out if they wanted to work with me, and I was sweating. I had really bad shakes — I was so scared. I left and drank outside of the studio to calm down!
I saw a documentary on the Sonic Youth web site, circa Murray Street, and I was so surprised to see how incredibly organ- ized their recording process is despite the fact that their music always seems constantly just on the verge of collapse.
They'd have music charts in front of them. I went to their studio for that interview and everything was perfectly organized — guitars and pedals. Paperwork was organized. I've been really lucky to work with people who are familiar with their own sound and who know what they want.
How do you maintain that live energy they have without betraying the total organization that goes into it? Is it just a matter of getting the first or second take?
Totally! Jim O'Rourke had recommended to me, "Be ready to record." The first time they went out there to play "Pink Steam," I wasn't ready. I was scared shitless. I'm thinking they're practicing, but they were actually playing it and I was totally not ready. They said, "Let's try it once more," and I was like, "Thank God!" They would just start playing, everyone would jump in and that could have been it. Not unlike Wilco. I'd like to say the same with the [Stephen] Malkmus record, but every time we got the song something [technical] was fucked up. It drove me bananas!
Any insights to translating electric guitar sounds, where the textures you're getting are so important?
It depends. If I'm at Sear Sound I know what I'm going to do with a guitar every time: I'm going to take a [Shure SM]57, a [Neumann U]67 (the old ones) and a [Sennheiser MD] 421, and put them all on the board, and then bus them all out, to one bus. I'll bring them all up so that all three combined are clipping [in the bus], then I'll bring the bus down. They'll all go into an MB1 compressor — just enough to make [the level] go down a little bit — they're so fast. It's a Pultec, but Bob Fine and Walter [customized them]. I used that on the Sonic Youth record. Make sure they're all in phase. It's a big sound. That's a go-to for guitars. I often cut 16 kHz from guitars. Tom Verlaine was here one time and he did that and I liked it a lot. He'd cut it all the way out and say, "Now it sounds right." You need to smooth it out if it hurts too much.
Steve Shelley [Sonic Youth] and Glenn Kotche [Wilco] are both such dynamic, musical drummers.
For the Sonic Youth record, I used a Sony C37 [tube mic] on the toms, with two [Neumann] KM54s on the overheads. [This way] we can kind of move the [Sony's] away from the toms. It's just easier to not have that weird bleed and overtone shit that gets into tom mics. Those two mics, that's your room sound right there. You don't have to take them out, because the second you do, it sounds weird. And those C37s match the KM54s so well that they're always in the picture. For room mics, I'll throw some where they weren't last time. I always put them in a different spot.
What do you use for the hi-hat?
A Sennheiser [MD]441. Something big. I like that Sennheiser because I can make it loud — it sounds heavy and old. The Wilco record was really all SM57s — even on the bass drum. A lot of it is subtle, and I would ride things to taste. If it's being recorded with just a bit of compression, there shouldn't be a whole lot I need to do.
It sounds like such a Sear thing: just a little bit of compression, ride it to tape if you have to.
On the Wilco record I rode the drums a lot. On "Impossible Germany" I had to ride it all the time.
So it's about learning the song and learning the players.
Walter Sear taught me (and many others) how to do that. He's coming from a time when you brought up a score and you didn't even listen, you just followed the score and that's when you move things up and down. It's a little bit different with rock 'n' roll. With Wilco I had the songs learned, so I would just listen and go, "There's part A, part B."
Your work passes through a lot of different hands. It's usually someone else who mixes it, then it goes through the mastering process. There are still a lot of gently muted tones and balanced levels. How do you maintain such consistency?
I think that whatever is recorded, that's the sound of the record. You could trigger as many drums as you want, but you've pretty much got the sound of it. If you're going to track guitar, there's not a whole lot you can do in the mix to change the sound of it. I'm sure there are a lot of people who would beg to differ with that, because I know you can do a billion things, but I did the same thing for the electric guitars on all those records. I've been lucky enough to work with a lot of bands, like the jazz bands that would come in — they just wanted it to sound exactly like the [the room]. They would come in to listen, and if something didn't sound right we'd move guitars until it did.
It seems like all your recordings sit in a certain frequency range.
It's probably in the mid-range — I think that's where a lot of the music lies. You can really only create music with those amazing lows and super-smooth highs in the studio. I don't always like what has to be "created." Sometimes getting a great low-end is worth it, but by not trying to accentuate so much stuff you've often done a better job. John Agnello would say, "None is the most," and he's right. I've been told that my recordings have a lot of 500 and 900 Hz. I've never looked at it on a spectrum analyzer but I can hear it — I don't want to cut that stuff out. Leave it where it is.
Most of the music these days is going to be played through a wide variety of speakers. What are you listening for when you're monitoring?
A lot of stereo imaging — making sure that the stereo image is right, even when I'm tracking. Once you have that right then there's room for everything to sit naturally. It's amazing what you can do with just the pan knobs alone. I think every console should have those [Little Labs] IBP phase adjustment knobs instead of a 180° out. With those, you can put everything into place. If that's your rough mix, all you should have to do is make a couple aesthetic changes, compression or whatever.
That's a Walter Sear thing too. He said in that [Tape Op #41] interview that panning is really there to enhance the stereo image.
I totally agree with that. I can really put things right where they need to go with panning. I'll often find myself fiddling to make sure that the weight is right, especially with guitars. I love it when guitarists use two amps. I can make that stereo and it'll sound huge. All you essentially need is one mic on each one.
I understand that one of the console's EQs at Sear Sound goes to 30 kHz? Can you even hear that?
You'd be surprised! You'd think you wouldn't, but if you're listening to the vocal you can add all this room around it without changing the sound. You can't really hear it, I agree with that, but there's something that happens. I would almost always do that here on the vocal — add that 30 kHz.
How do you ensure a successful recording session? Is there any pre- production work you swear by?
I try to know what exactly it is I'm going to be doing. "How many toms does the drummer use?" If I'm working in another studio, having prep time for the mics, the drums, where they're at — having the signal come out of each amp and having the mic return with no buzz and no hum. Stuff like that isn't exactly pre- production, I know, but if all that has happened in advance it helps the session go a hell of a lot smoother. Choosing the studio is really important. Budgets are really confusing — that's the hardest thing sometimes. Everything can get screwed up with the budget. I think the days of recording things in the "right spot" are confusing now, because you know you're going to have the time to do overdubs at some guy's Pro Tools place. A lot of people come here for two days, record their brains out, get some great sounds and then they'll go someplace and do overdubs for a long time. You can't help but fuck with the quality when you do that.
It doesn't sound cohesive.
It doesn't. I've mixed a couple records out of the box. Everything really stinks on those records. "What effect is that?" Some watery organ effect from whatever plug-in you got. It doesn't sound great — it sounds like shit.
Your sound is definitely rooted in techniques and textures of the past. What excites you about the future of recording?
I like it when bands make records live — where you can hear the band playing. What excites me the most is the music. Not the knobs. When I hear things that are new and technically good I don't spend too much time thinking, "How did they do that?" It's not that I don't care, but I actually want to hear the music because that's the only thing that excites me. You can make things sound stereo, and make things sound big and huge. But it takes time to learn how to do it right, and that's one of the great things about working in a place like Sear Sound. Working in a studio is about learning to do things right. When I came here I was the assistant to the engineer. It was, "Put that here," and I'm like, "Why?" Then I'd find out: because it sounded amazing.
Can you give a brief summary of your illness?
I was working in a studio in Brooklyn and the place wasn't clean. People get lazy. At one point I asked what some mess was on the wall, and someone said it was a rat someone had blown up with an M-80. The place was unhealthy and I was working too much. I was like, "Alright, I'll get two hours of sleep then go back to work. Change my underpants and socks." You don't always wash; you're not always clean, because you're at work. It's lame to record around the clock, because you don't know what you're doing. It might come out good, it might come out terrible. I ended up with a system-wide infection. The last thing I remember was when I went into the hospital — they were taking my vitals and the doctor asked, "What's the pain, on a scale of one to ten?" I was like, "One hundred and eleven." Then the shot came and I was out. This was all about a week before Christmas 2007 — on Christmas the doctors said I wasn't going to make it through the night. I woke up three-and-a- half weeks later, and heard these stories about all this horrible shit. They had to inflate my body with fluids. My lungs collapsed. I had a feeding tube. It was amazing, all the medicine I was on. There was a machine that would breathe for me, and then I had to learn how to breathe again, on my own. All of this from not paying attention to cleanliness. I learned the hard way. It was a mess. It's often a mess — being in the music business. You're just trying to be okay, trying to get paid, to make sure you get your checks. There's no way to get insurance, no great freelancers' union and no engineers' organization. But the whole thing was a bummer, really.
So now that you've had this near-death experience, what are you going to change about your life as you head back into the studio?
I'm probably going to say "No" to certain jobs. There's a lot more than work. Because that's really what it's about — the addiction with engineering. It's fun and people pay you. It's not as amazing to me as it was a few short years ago. "Look at me, mom. I'm engineering. I make records and wear whatever I want to work." What a moron. I'll still work for all the people I love. If other things come along, I'll have to use my instincts. I knew there were certain records I shouldn't have gotten involved in. It's tough to say, "Yes" to friends, too. You don't want to get involved in this scenario where a friend might not be your friend soon, because someone's mad at somebody.
From the artists for whom you work, to the labels, to the many people who are buying records you've worked on — you're obviously making a lot of people happy. What is the secret?
Did I mention doing things right and using your ears? r
TJ Doherty c/o Tony Margherita Management: tmmchi.com/tj.html, firstname.lastname@example.org
Alex McKenzie wants to record your music to 2" tape at Pete Weiss' Verdant Studio in beautiful Vermont. email@example.com, www.verdantstudio.com
Zoran Orlic: www.zerostudio.net
Thanks to NYC audio engineer/producer Andy Marcinkowski for helping with the initial interview. firstname.lastname@example.org