Years ago I met a young woman who was assisting at several studios and working with music people around New York City. She hooked Tape Op up with an interesting interview with stomp box designer John Schumann (issue #43). But mostly she kept busy in studios, working at Stratosphere Sound (issue #37), Engine Room Audio, Looking Glass Studios, Dubway Studios and Fireproof (issue #20). Along the way Dawn did live sound in New York and on the road, toured as a backing musician with the band Hem, and slowly worked on own her own albums. More recently she has teamed up with Steve Salett (who sat in for parts of this interview) to open Saltlands Studio in Brooklyn. Her persistence and drive keep her busy, but have paid off, and I wanted others to know how she did it.
Did you go to school to study recording?
I went to NYU for two years and then I dropped out and started working in studios. I had recorded my own stuff in high school on a 4-track, and then I took a film scoring class at NYU. I remember one of our tests was to make a score for Planet of the Apes. That was fun! That's were I learned Pro Tools. I took a MIDI class at NYU. It was called "MIDI For Non-Majors."
Does anyone give a shit about MIDI anymore?
I know! This was before Clive Davis got involved with the program. Before that they had no money. All of the equipment was terrible!
When I first met you, I think you were assisting at Stratosphere?
I was working at Stratosphere and a few other studios before that. I met this tech, Steve Masucci, who repaired the Chamberlin [keyboard]. I was asking him all these questions and he ended up hiring me as his assistant.
Were you running around, helping Steve do installs and repairing synthesizers?
Just a little bit. I also helped him recap a board — the pans on a Helios console.
At Henry Hirsch's Waterfront Studio? [issue #56]
It was at his old place in the Edison Hotel — same Helios though.
So you jumped into studio work.
I did! I made a lot of mistakes. Before Stratosphere, I got my first internship at Looking Glass Studios when I was in college. I was there for six months. I started assisting there. Then I went to Dubway — Great guys. Al Houghton taught me all about the tape machine. He's a real electrical engineer — kind of over my head sometimes, but really awesome. I was assisting at Dubway and Stratosphere Sound. Then just Stratosphere. Then I was the house engineer at Engine Room Audio. That was cool. Engine Room started out like this, as rehearsal spaces. Then Mark [Christensen] made a nice room.
I thought he was doing a lot of mastering.
That's his main thing.
There was engineering going on too?
Yeah, we had a Trident. It was a manufacturing house too. There were always artists in and out of there that I knew from playing and gigging around.
What kinds of jobs were coming in there?
I did some weird stuff there. I remember once a dude just brought in some vinyl and had me transfer it. Then he brought in his reverb unit — he was rapping and I was cutting up these things for him. It was low budget — he would book a couple of hours at a time. It was all misogynistic shit. That was a moment where I wondered what I was doing with my life! This lady did a seven-disc series of test prep CDs which took me forever. I did it in Logic and I had never used Logic before. It was pretty new age-y — singing bowls and gongs. The music was really beautiful, but I'd be droning out to her voice. The music made me feel really spacey. That whole time I was also working with Steve Masucci and Victor Van Vugt [issue #48], Gary Maurer and his band Hem. I started touring with Hem, and that kind of launched me for touring. I was playing glockenspiel, sometimes singing and playing guitar.
Have you learned from a lot of different folks along the way?
I've had some great teachers. Victor Van Vugt made me his assistant on a couple of projects, which was awesome. He had a little project studio on Christopher Street. I got to track at Jolly Roger in Hoboken. Gary Maurer put me on a bunch of recordings. We worked on some projects at Brooklyn Recording and Sear Sound [issue #41] — amazing.
Part of this game is getting out and meeting people.
Yeah, totally! I was basically working in studios for five years. I wasn't recording much of my own music — I was recording when I had time. It took me four years to make my first album — all done after hours. Now it means so much to me to meet people while I'm touring. I met Alexi [Murdoch] while I was out on a tour, now he comes here to record. You make friends. I want to produce more. I've done two full-length film scores now, though no one has seen the movies!
It's nice to have another outlet. You could put out another solo CD every six months, but it's saturation. If you get to do other projects on the side, you can stay busy.
Exactly. I love it. My friends come in and I record them. I've ended up singing on almost everything that I work on by accident, just because I'm there. When I'm not touring, I'm here. There's always something to do here!
With the early days at Stratosphere and Looking Glass, were you interning unpaid?
Looking Glass was unpaid. I basically worked at a bookstore for five years while I was interning.
When did you sleep? [laughter]
I didn't sleep much. I did sleep in the studio a lot at Dubway. In between that I was starting to tour and do live sound. Then Steve Salett and I did a soundtrack together — Familiar Strangers - a movie that was pretty terrible, but the music was awesome! Steve and I had so much fun working together that we decided to do as much as we could together.
So the rest of the basement where Saltlands resides is rehearsal rooms, right? So how do you isolate from the sounds nearby?
We're lucky, because we're right on the corner. Up until now, there was a wood shop that was closest to us. Steve and I did that movie score together in one of the rehearsal rooms. It was kind of hard because we were always at the mercy of the drummer next door. We decided to build a proper studio. This used to be storage space for the carpenters.
S: It was a lot of work to clean everything up. A lot of people in the rehearsal spaces have little recording spots set up and they just work around each other. It's something about the rehearsal spaces that we never advertised. Lots of people know each other.
Do you ever go out and record in the hallway?
I have done that. I did a project with a girl band with a tap dancer. We recorded the tap dancer in the hallway. Horns sound great out there too.
A lot of equipment from friends is in this space. How does that happen?
Well, a lot of it is because of these rehearsal spaces. Equipment gets abandoned here. Also because it's New York — nobody wants to put their equipment in their house. Gary Maurer has accumulated some amazing gear over the years. Gary still has some stuff at Stratosphere, which is where I met him. He's got a great mic collection and a bunch of amps.
S: Yeah, but more than this stuff, a lot of people brought their expertise to the table.
How many people have equipment in here, at this point?
All I can tell you for sure is that Tube-Tech [CL 1B] and that Purple Audio MC77 are Gary's. The Vintechs are Eli [Janney]'s and the Tube-Tech LCA 2B was bought by the studio.
So, is the studio as a business just you and Steve?
It's just Steve and me. I try to make sure people are in here doing stuff. That's my contribution. Then I get to work in here. I've bought some equipment as well. All of the weird instruments are mine, like the dulcimer, the banjo and the foot bells.
Running a studio is a good way to lose money. At the same time, you've both got projects, plus people freelancing. It's also a place to consolidate people's equipment. Is that turning out to be viable for you guys?
S: It's really helped having the rehearsal spaces. We're really building a community. Financially, people are willing to pay for a rehearsal space.
Are you guys managing the rehearsal rooms?
S: It really helps the studio work. Eventually it will make money. [laughter] Being able to do our own stuff also helps us make money.
As far as a partnership, are you pooling money to buy equipment or does the equipment belong to individuals?
S: It's both.
S: It's a non-equity partnership. There're a lot of different parts to it.
When we first moved into this space we didn't have a lot of gear. Joel [Morowitz] from spinArt Records [and Ecstatic Electric] had all this great gear and nowhere to put it. So we were able to use that. For my Sweet Heart Rodeo record I used his Shadow Hills mic preamps. That was amazing. I'm so sad we don't have those anymore!
S: It's amazing how friendly people are and how much people want to help. We've been lucky here — sometimes there's $100,000 worth of gear!
That's the beauty and the curse of a communal place. Sometimes someone will wander in and end up playing French horn on a track. It's great. I love it.
People lament that the older studio system is being lost. Now you're getting to implement this in a new way.
Totally. When I was working at Stratosphere, Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne had a huge hit, so he was in and out a lot. He's someone that I thought, "I want to do what he's doing." He tours and produces all of this stuff in the studio with James Iha (of the Smashing Pumpkins). I guess that's kind of what I'm doing now, though on a smaller level. I just got back from Ireland the other night, dropped my gear and started recording.
How many people work out of here right now?
Let's see — me, Steve, Gary Maurer. Eli Janney does some stuff. We've got a great house engineer, Jim Smith, who worked on my record. We've got some assistants, as well.
What other projects have been going on in here, besides yours?
Sondre Lerche was just in here, Jolie Holland, The Robbers on High Street.
S: The Soft Pack. The Opiates did some stuff here too.
Alexi Murdoch. My husband, Josh Ritter, did some horns and stuff for his new record. It's mostly word of mouth — just our friends.
You're a woman who records yourself and others. Why aren't there more women? What's wrong?
I don't know. There are a lot of weird things about studios. I think people thought I was gay for the longest time because I had short hair and I didn't dress up. You're working in a studio — you're not supposed to dress like a girl. It's not practical. I wore high heels and makeup to work at Dubway once, but only because it was Halloween!
When do you find time for a relationship?
Well, I tour a lot and so does my husband Josh. Whenever we have free time, we'll join the other one on tour. We want to do a record together too — some covers and old songs.
It's interesting. You have separate things going on career-wise.
We've toured together before, and we will again. It's awesome. I don't want his fans to get sick of me though! I didn't have many relationships for a long time. You meet a lot of men working in the field, but you want to be professional. Josh and I met at Dubway. I recorded him singing a Hank Williams song. I don't remember anything about that session because he was my first client. I was more concerned about the levels and being focused on my work! [laughter] I don't remember much of that meeting at all.
What does he remember?
He remembers being nervous. He'd never sung with reverb on his voice before. Then we met again later on the live side. It's cool that we met that way, because a lot of people didn't know that side of me.
Is it weird to you that people can't put the two together?
I think a lot of people just don't know anything about this world.
We're all behind the curtain, aren't we?
Exactly. I've played one hundred shows in a year, but I'd still rather be here. I wish I could bring everybody here. Years ago I was doing live sound to make money. I was working at Tonic — all female sound engineers when I was there! I'm sad that place is gone. I would tour, open up and then do sound after my set. It's really tiring, and you never get to eat dinner, but it's fun. Steve fronted a band called The King of France and they did a tour opening for Nada Surf. I went on that tour and did sound. I sang from the soundboard. Nobody noticed — they thought it was an effect! I learned so much. That's trial by fire. I did a tour with Midlake and The Earlies in the UK. That was crazy because The Earlies were an eight-piece band. I'd do sound for them, then Midlake and I was also opening solo acoustic. That's the last time I did that!
That sure drags you away from work in the studio.
Exactly! I just want to be in this beautiful little cave.
One of the little touches I really like on your album, Sweet Heart Rodeo, is the stereo percussion on "Young Girl."
The clapping was pieces of wood. I got four people in a room, had them clap wood together and put a delay on it.
That's cool. Were there any other tricks?
We also placed slivers of wood on the piano for the song, "Romeo." It sounds like a clinking — like chop sticks. Ray [Rizzo], the drummer, is insanely creative. He played his beard with a paper cup! He's even used a water cooler!
Is it fun to have time to mess around?
Yes! When I was recording at other studios I had a little Pro Tools rig in my house. That was fun and I got a lot of crazy, unexpected sounds. I was charging $10 an hour! But this is better.
Did Gary Maurer do the mixing for Sweet Heart Rodeo?
Gary did most of the mixing at Stratosphere and Hector Castillo did two songs at Looking Glass right before they closed. I've worked with Gary so much. He's an amazing musician and one of my favorite engineers. Have you heard his records?
I've heard the Hem stuff.
He also did some Fountains of Wayne, Matt Keating, Luna...
Was that nice for you to hand stuff off?
Yeah. I'm a control freak, so I was there for the mixes. But it was nice to have some help! I had to come to terms with not doing everything by myself.