Make Your Mark With Mark Trombino
Producer and engineer Mark Trombino has spent the better part of his life making platinum records for the likes of Jimmy Eat World, Blink 182 and The Starting Line. His work on these seminal records, in addition to his drumming in Drive Like Jehu, helped spark a revolution that pushed the genres of pop punk and emo to millions of new listeners.
In his time since working with these artists, Trombino opened his own donut shop located in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Dubbed Donut Friend, the shop flips the traditional donut on its head and even gives a musical bend to each creation's name, including Bacon 182, Banana Kill, Chocolate From The Crypt and Drive Like Jelly.
"The concept for Donut Friend was taking a donut and putting things inside it. Treating it like a sandwich," Trombino says. "The idea is we can slice things, put stuff inside, not just on top. You weren't limited to the things you normally associate with donuts; jams, creams or whatever. You could put cheese in them, fresh fruit, literally anything."
We recently visited Mark Trombino at Donut Friend to talk about his new adventure in the world of making pastries and his storied career behind the console in the recording studio. Watch our new Make Your Mark with Mark below and continue on for an extended interview that touches on his start in the industry, his approach to miking drums and more.
What made you want to get into recording?
I think it was the experience of being recorded by other people. I'm kind of a control freak by nature and the experience I had prior to doing it myself, I was always frustrated by the process. I didn't feel like anyone understood the kind of sound I wanted. I always felt like as the drummer, sort-of sidelined by the engineer and producer and that never sat well with me. Plus, I'm nerdy and I like tech-y things, so equipment and touching electronic things was always exciting to me.
When did you get started and how did you learn?
I was in the music program and USCD [University of California San Diego] had a pretty cool electronic music program back in the day. This is back before electronic music was widely available and it was all done at universities. They had a little crappy electronic music studio and that's where I would bring bands in and taught myself how to record. Well, I really taught myself using 4-track cassette recorders, but I applied that knowledge to a real studio there. They had a 1" 16-track tape machine and a 24-channel Neotek console. It was enough to learn on.
I also worked in the theatre, which was just a few doors down. So I would come in at night, I wasn't supposed to, and take their microphones. They had a bunch of Sennheisers, SM57s and stuff and I'd bring them in and use them to record.
What are some of your early memories of being in the studio and doing all of the engineering work yourself?
The first time I got in a real studio was with Yank Crime [Drive Like Jehu's second album]. I had done recordings prior to that, I had worked in studios prior to that,but Yank Crime was the first time I was behind the board doing everything. It was pretty terrifying because it was our second record and I didn't know what I was doing. Somehow I convinced the guys to let me take on that responsibility and they foolishly let me.
It was weird. It was in a studio I had never worked in before. I actually had recorded there years before with Night Soil Man, but I had never been on an API console, I had never used a 24-track machine, I had never used it any of this stuff. It was all new to me. I faked it.
I think doing that record gave me some experience and I was able to take that experience and start inviting other bands to come work with me in that studio. That's definitely how my career started.
Talk about the end of Drive Like Jehu. Why did you opt to stay working in the studio instead of starting another band?
I liked that I was in a band, but I didn't like the work of being in a band. I liked playing shows and I liked telling people I'm in Drive Like Jehu, but I didn't like practicing and I didn't like touring. So, I wasn't super eager to get into another band. When Drive Like Jehu ended, we didn't really end, we just stopped playing. It was like, "I have all this time to do recordings, so I'll do that until Jehu does shows again." Then it just kind of went on forever.
Talk about the Jimmy Eat World records you did. What was that experience like?
The first one I did was Static Prevails, which was my first "major label record," besides Jehu, and that experience was unlike anything. We didn't do demos, we didn't have to submit mixes. With Jimmy Eat World, I had to do pre-production and demos. There were more people involved, the A&R guy, managers. That was a whole new experience for me.
I was also co-producing with another guy because I had no discography and the label didn't trust me. So they put with another guy who didn't have a discography. That was a sort of dysfunctional way to make a record, but I handled all the engineering and recording and he handled the songwriting stuff. It was cool, I learned some things from him.
Then after that, they made Clarity. That was a much more positive fun experience because that was all me. They decided to just work with just me and I got to actually produce.
How important is getting drum sounds for you in the studio?
I feel like it's the bed of any recording, so I spend a good chunk of time searching for those sounds. I always try to record the room more than the drums. I spend a lot of time finding good spots for recording or cool places to put microphones. I just found that the room can make all the difference. Also, having really good drums and tuning the drums and having great players and people that hit solid.
I never really had super go-to choices for microphones because I would always fall back on what the studio had and I wouldn't collect a lot of my own gear. I kind of always just wanted to roll into a place and be like, "Alright, what do you got?" That said, I do have some favorites. ATM250s are some of my favorite mics because they are so versatile. I use them on toms a lot. I use D112s on kicks a lot. I'd use an SM57, but pair it with a condenser mic or something. Overheads, I'd usually throw up the nicest mics they had, either U 67s or ribbon mics. Whatever was leftover, I'd stick out in the room.
For pretty much the entirety of my career, I never knew what the fuck I was doing or felt like I did. So, I was really just always looking for that better sound. I was adapting to environments and hearing what other people did on other records and just trying to find it.
What are some studio essentials that you needed to take with you to work on a session?
I would bring Tube-Tech stuff. I loved Tube-Tech and I had a couple of their mic pres and compressors and stuff. I had some API knock off mic pres, I'd bring them. It was mostly those, the mic pres, because I'd go into a lot of places with crappy boards, but with those I could get nice, clean sounds to tape and feel pretty good. If I captured that, I could always tweak it somewhere else down the line and I felt safe. I tried a few different compressors, but I'd always go back to my Tube-Tech stuff.
What made you transition from recording to opening up Donut Friend?
For the longest time, I had been talking about opening up a donut shop. Joking with friends, "One of these days, I'm going to quit the music business and open up a donut shop." I just did that forever. When I came to the realization that I had to do something, I said, "Well, fuck, why not?" I've done records for so long, I'm not doing anything new, anything I've been doing is derivative. I didn't have the same excitement I used to. I just decided to go for it. I went all in.
What was the evolution of the donut shop? How did you get it going?
I treated becoming a donut guy the same way I treated becoming a record producer guy. I just started doing it. I didn't know anything about it, the same way I didn't know anything about making records. Fortunately, you can just go online. I watched shit loads of YouTube videos and learned about how to do a lot of this stuff.
I worked a lot at home, trying to create recipes, how to make the dough and how to roll it out. It was always a compromise because I was doing it at home, but it was like "One of these days I'm going to have a proper kitchen." Then I built my real kitchen and tried to do all those same things I was doing at home in the kitchen and nothing worked. I basically had to start all over again. It was this repetitive process. I'd make it, try it and it could be better. I'd keep doing it over and over again.
I built this place, everything was done and I still didn't know how to make donuts. So I pretty much spent two months here, just me in the back, making donuts, trying to figure it out. I had an idea of where I was going, I had a rough idea of how to get there, but then I just had to make the journey.
How would you compare making donuts to producing music?
I think it's a lot different for me than most people. I make donuts in a different way than most do because I'm self-taught. Same thing with records. I know how I want things to sounds, I know how I want things to taste, I don't really know to make those things happen, but I'm going to keep doing it and working at it until I get there. I'm always looking for some ideal, the perfect album or the perfect donut. I will not stop until I get there.
If you're interested in hearing some of the music that Mark Trombino worked on during his career in the producer's chair, check out the tracks below from Jimmy Eat World, Blink 182 and his own band, Drive Like Jehu.