Boombox MAG Interview with Mark Trombino

The following is an unedited e-mail interview between Jonathan Kreinik (of Boombox MAG Sound and Recording Pamphlet) and Mark Trombino (of Drive Like Jehu, obviously) that took place in the Spring of '95. Courtesy of Jonathan.

Jonathan: First, I'd like to know some of the basic you got into recording, what other records you've done?

Mark: I got did my first non-four-track recordings while I was going to school at UCSD. They have a 16-track electronic music studio there that isn't really equipped to do live music, but you can make it happen by bringing in your own mikes, cables, headphones...They don't have an actual recording program, they just provide the studio for composition students. You're on your own to learn how to use it properly. I taught myself, basically, from reading books and from watching other engineers.

Anyway, the first recording I did there was Night Soil Man's second album. I also did Drive Like Jehu's Merge 7" and "Sinews" there, some Three Mile Pilot songs (one on their new record), a remix of a Helicopter LP, and a Heavy Vegetable 7". I also got to do the Heavy Vegetable record at a "real" studio by accident. I went to just sit in and help with drum sounds, but eventually the engineer thought that the band would feel more comfortable with me behind the console than himself, so I took over.

Lately I've been bringing bands to Big Fish, which is where Jehu recorded about half of Yank Crime. It's a 24-track facility with a 40-input API console. It has a beautiful all wood studio, great mic selection, and plenty of outboard gear. I've done Jehu, Drip Tank, Boilermaker, Boys Life, Chinchilla, Tanner, aMiniature, Swivelneck, No Knife, Radio Wendy, Lucy's Fur Coat, and Heavy Vegetable albums there. Oh, I almost forgot, I also got to fly to Boston to record Sinkhole!

Jonathan: Do you have equipment preferences (mics, equalizers, consoles, tape machines, tape brands)? Or is it all the basically the same and you work with what's available?

Mark: I use what I've got. I've found some things that work better than others. If I had all the mics in the world, I would still use AKG D112 on bass drums, Shure 57s on snare drums and guitar amps, and an Audio Technica ATM 25 for bass amps. I like condenser mics on toms and overheads. At Big Fish I've been using AKG 451s on toms and B&K 4011 for overheads, and AKG 414s for room mics.

As far as tape, I've been using either Ampex 499 or 3M 996. I like 499 better only because I don't like the 3M packaging. That's silly, I know, but I can't tell a difference otherwise...

Jonathan: Do you use effects (it doesn't sound like it, or it's very subtle)?

Mark: Yes, I use effects, but I don't like to be obvious about it. I was particularly cautious with Jehu though. Mostly, I'll use a little reverb on the snare drum and a little on the vocals and thats about it.

Jonathan: How about equalization and compression?

Mark: Umm, I eq to tape mostly. I also compress to tape (bass and vocals). I haven't found a need to compress guitars yet, but I don't have any reservations about doing it...

Jonathan: "Yank Crime" has a really transparent blend of tones. Basically all the instruments come through loud and clear and yet there's this nice unity to all the that kind of out there? Anyway, what do you attribute this to? Mic placement and selection? EQ? Both, none of the above?

Mark: All the above. Seems like all those things are equally improtant to a recording. I think that's the advantage of stripped down recordings, is that there is more room for everything.

Jonathan: Did the band record all at the same time, or did you overdub the bass and guitars?

Mark: We all record at the same time, but the guitars overdub all their tracks. There were at the least 3 guitars going, but sometimes there were more. The drums were isolated because of the overdubbing.

Jonathan: I think the drums sound pretty rad. Particularly the ambience from the room. I think I can also hear it on Rick's voice on "Do You Compute" and "Luau" during the breakdowns. What's the room like at West Beach?

Mark: West Beach has a not very live room. We miked it up a lot, using four room mics on the drums. We had two B&K 4017 omni's far left and right, and we used two 414s in an MS pattern in the center. The blend of the four worked out pretty well.

When I record a band, I ask that the drummer get coated ambassador heads for the toms, a coated ambassador with a power dot for the snare, a clear powerstroke 3 for the bass drum, and if the bottom heads are totally shot to get evans reso heads for the bottom of the toms. Of course, this varies with the quality of the drumset too. If its really shitty, then I would recommend thicker heads since they tend to hide the imper-fections in the shell better.

Ricks vocals (as well as all the bass and some of the guitars and some of the drums) were done at Big Fish. I added a little ambience to ricks voice with a Lexicon 300.

Jonathan: What was your experience with 4-track recording like? Did you record bands, hang out in the basement and do whatever?

Mark: I mostly recorded the band that I was in at the time, Night Soil Man. We had two four tracks, so we would record all the instruments using all four tracks on one machine, mix down to two tracks on the other machine, then add vocals with the remaining two tracks. It worked out pretty well that way. I also did some stuff of my own as well, but I was pretty busy with Night Soil Man.

Jonathan: Do you feel the 4-trk had any significant effect on what you've done in the studio?

Mark: I suppose that it did, although I can't really think how. Just the basics of recording, I guess...

Jonathan: In the practice space do you guys record...boombox, 4 trk, microcassetts, etc?

Mark: Sometimes we'll record with a boombox, sometimes I'll bring in my DAT machine.

Jonathan: I think most bands just turn on the box to record just throw it in the corner. Occasionally I'll see a band's practice space that has a boombox that's been strategically placed. Is there ever any consideration given to balances?

Mark: Not really. We do it just to have something to listen to. We don't care about how it sounds, it's just for us. We'll try and put the box in some central location so everyone can be heard, but thats really all.

Jonathan: Are there any engineers/records that you admire for their recording?

Mark: I don't really pay attention to other engineers. What I've found is that everyone is sort of hit and miss. I think Albini is really, really good, but I've heard some recordings he's done that sound pretty bad. I know that the variables involved in getting a good recording pretty much dictate that it's not going to be good every time. Whether it's the studio, the mics involved, the time involved, the band itself, the way in which it was tracked, etc..

Jonathan: Would you like to record other bands more? Would you like to be the guy people call to make the cool records?

Mark: Yes, definately. Since I have some time off from Jehu, I would really like to start expanding on my recording experience. I would love to have bands hear my work and want to record with me. I would also like to record bands that can afford a little more time then just a few days.

Jonathan: There's a big trend to use equipment based on its vintage-ness, without much consideration given to its sound qualities when compared to current equipment, much less if it's calibrated. Any thoughs? Have you ever encountered and do you share or oppose this attitude?

Mark: I don't know. Some of the stuff I use is "vintage", some not. I really can't see using a piece of equipment just because it is vintage or was used on a Beatles album. I suppose if you want to get that sound, okay, but I want to get the best sound I can. I don't want make recordings that sound old, I don't want them to sound "modern", I just want it to sound like the band. As good as it can be, using whatever equipment gets the job done to my liking.

Jonathan: Lo-Fi Shmo-fi? What's up w/that trend? Like it?

Mark: Not really. To record lo fi because its cool? That's not a good reason. I think that a good recording is transparent, and allows you to forget about the recording and just listen to the music. To me, low fi is definately not transparent, and forces you to pay attention to how it was recorded rather than the music. That's me, though. I think that in a good studio with a good engineer you can get all the attractive elements of lo-fi, that is an honest and natural recording, and still have it be hi-fi. That's what I strive for.

Jonathan: Have you any interest in sound for picture like foley, dialogue, location sound?

Mark: Maybe someday. I don't know. Right now I don't think it would be as fun as recording a band, but who knows...I certainly wouldn't mind trying it once...

Jonathan: You recorded the Sinkhole record here in Boston. Was there any noticeable East-Coast vibe in the studio? How was their session similar/different from, say, the West-Coast Jehu session.

Mark: I didn't notice an East Coast versus West Coast difference, just 16 track versus 24. Project studio versus full blown studio.

Jonathan: What studio was it and were there any significant changes in equipment from what you're used to?

Mark: The Lanes (in Boston) was a comfortable place to work, it was cheap, and it got the job done.

Jonathan: What's going on w/Jehu? Another record soon? A tour? Double-live album?

Mark: Nothing. We're on ice until further notice. Right now, John is busy working with Rocket From The Crypt and doesn't have any time for Jehu (so he says). He anticipates wanting to resume Jehu inabout a year and a half. In the meantime, Rick and I will be doing other things together - studio stuff maybe.

Everyone is looking for other things to do during the break, which may mean that we will find better things to do and not want to continue with Jehu. That would be really fucked, I hope it doesn't happen, but it could...


Copyright © Swag Valance Publishing Ltd, 1995