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Catherine Vericolli is the owner, engineer and manager of Fivethirteen Recording Studios in Tempe, Arizona. She is a lover of all things analog who has personally headed all console installations and outboard wiring at Fivethirteen since the studio's first console and 2" machine in 2006. She also co-edits Pink Noise Magazine and teaches classes at The Conservatory Of Recording Arts and Sciences.
During a rare moment of downtime while on a business trip in Hawaii, Catherine was nice enough to chat with us for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about her obsession with ribbon mics, what it’s like starting your own studio and the time she met Rupert Neve.
1. How did you get started making records?
When I was younger growing up in Phoenix I was obsessed with collecting records. I was super into listening to music as a kid. I tried out a few different instruments, but I really wasn’t very good at reading music, and theory was never my thing.
I found my way into a recording engineer program at a school here in Arizona. As soon as that happened, I felt like I was in the right place. A lot of my friends at the time were musicians because I was super into music, so I was pretty active in the music scene back in the early 2000s.
2. How did you come start Fivethirteen Recording Studios?
At the time, there wasn’t really a place for musicians to make records that wasn’t like, a bedroom/laptop kind of situation or a really expensive at like a $1,000 per day studio. Phoenix was never really a recording destination; there wasn’t really anything in-between those two spots for local bands to make records, so after I went to school I decided to stay in Arizona and build a studio.
I ended up deciding I wanted a large format console and a tape machine, to go the old-school way. So, I found a house that I felt like I could do it in. I wanted it to be really comfortable and I didn’t want to go the commercial route. We ended up building a full-fledged pro studio in a house in Tempe.
I wanted to find a spot that was comfortable where I could keep the hours I wanted to keep and also keep the cost down to the clients, so it made sense to do it in a house. It’s sort of a strange thing to explain to people, like “ Oh, you have a home studio?”. But, it’s not really a home studio. At the time, we only had the A Room which was just for tracking. It had a control room and live rooms. Now we’ve got that and a giant B Room mixing suite. The house is like 2300 square feet, and only about 400 or 500 square feet is living space. It’s not a home studio... It’s a studio that I live in.
I got started doing records for my friends when I was 23 and I had no idea what I was doing. It was a lot of trial and error. It was very much like “Oh, this is gonna be super fun!” You know? Later on, you realize, “Fuck, I have to make money doing this.”
When I was young, I wanted a room that I had a part in designing. I wanted to pick out the gear and make the whole place catered to the musicians that I was close to at the time. I had been in a lot of studios as a student. I did an internship in a big complex studio in Chandler and it was just awful. Lots of purple Auralex, very 2000s.
I wanted something with a little more… I hate the word "vibe," but I wanted something with a little more comfort to it, that felt more like home. The house is from the 1950s, so we went with that theme and did 50s colors and kept everything really quaint.
The main tracking room is the master bedroom, although you couldn’t tell now. We had a big Arizona room that we cut in half and made into a lounge and tracking control room, which is like 14x16 feet. It’s really quaint and a very personal experience.
When I was young I was interested in figuring out how to do all of that and have it make sense. Dealing with all the wiring, all the tech stuff and also being taken seriously as a 23-year-old female in a place where there was zero industry.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I bought an old piece of shit Neotek Series III CU, which was an old custom console. It was all hard-wired, all Belden, there was no dimming at all... It was a nightmare.
I also bought a Studer A800 that I had to have completely rebuilt. I bought it from a not very reputable gear company, but I didn’t know anything at the time. I was just like "I’m going to buy a console and a tape machine.” I think we also bought a Digi 002, and a pair of ADAM monitors, which we actually really loved, they were a pair of P22As. We had like a rack of Focusrite ISA 428s that were our main pres. they're great, I still have them. I use them all the time.
3. What has the demand for bands wanting to use tape been like?
Well, budgets aren’t as big as they used to be and tape is still really expensive to get new. Clients are demanding the same service and the same quality with a lower budget, which means engineers need the ability to make records with the same quality while spending less money on gear.
When I was a student we were on Pro Tools 5, I think? They rolled it into class on a big giant computer kiosk. We didn’t have laptops or anything. I thought it was cool for editing, but not really that great. I put a lot more emphasis on learning to make records in the analog realm.
But, as technology improves, every gear company that makes something [physical] has a good plug-in version as well. Universal Audio is making outstanding plug-ins and people can’t tell the difference, as much as it pains me to say it. And the new mic pre-modeling shit is insane.
We’re clinging to that old-school tracking mode where we can mix in-the-box and have it sounds great, but can we track-in the-box? Not so much yet. We’re still waiting for that wave, and UA is blowing that shit out of the water.
People who make records on tape now do it because it’s a niche and they can afford it. They’re doing it for the experience. You’ve got to be better at what you do to make a record to tape on both sides of the glass.
4. Is it tough balancing your work as an engineer and your work as the owner of the studio?
It was weird when it started. I built this place because I wanted to make records and that was it. Then I realized that I needed help. I needed a staff, I needed interns. For the first five years, I did everything. Set up, tear down, emails, cleaning, everything. I still do a lot of it now, but I have help.
I brought on staff engineers, which was great because I had the opportunity to support the community. When I built the studio I never wanted to do everything by myself. I never wanted to be one of those engineers who’s locked in dark room all day long with no one to bounce ideas off of. I really liked the community idea of making records. Unfortunately in Phoenix, that’s tough because there’s not a lot of people who are really doing it. There wasn’t a lot of community… There’s still not.
It’s always been kind of a family with the staff engineers. Once that started to happen, it gave me a little bit more time to really get into dealing with clients one-on-one and working on projects that I was really into as opposed to having to work on everything.
That was an interesting transition. It was kind of weird for me because I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough, or I wasn’t involved enough in the record making process at that point. But, that really changed when we built our mixing suite with the Trident 80B and I went headfirst into designing that room. I did all the wiring and everything. It took a good year and a half to two years to get it up and running.
I basically didn’t make any records for a solid year because I was concentrated on getting that done. I went from running the studio and wearing all the hats, to finding interns to do the shit that I really didn’t have time for and finding staff engineers to run sessions, while I dealt with this new room being built.
To be honest, when that happened, I hated it. I started this because I wanted to make records, and I never really got back into that because I realized that somebody's gotta run the business. Somebody’s gotta deal with the money and keep the schedule together. I’m really good at that. I'm really good at troubleshooting problems during the day and tech issues and getting things together. So, I decided I'm good at this and just stick with it.
Now I enjoy it because I get to see the artists and the staff grow. There are opportunities for everyone now instead of just me doing everything.
5. You’ve got a killer gear list over there at Fivethirteen. What mics are getting used most often?
We love ribbon mics. We don’t have a ton but the Coles 4038 is used on almost every session. We love that mic, we have two, but I wish we had more. They stay up on the stands always. I’m not a huge fan of condenser mics generally. I usually feel like they're annoying and overly sensitive.
We just got a pair of SE Electronics Voodoo VR2s, which are the active ribbons, we’ve been using those a ton. We’ve got an RCA 44 that we don’t use a lot but when we do it’s perfect. We’ve got an old pair of Unidyne 544s, which are old-school 57s that we use a lot. It’s probably our favorite tom mic choice. We do have a Blue U47 refurb that we love. It’s got a Telefunken body and it’s awesome. It’s so similar to a vintage U47.
6. What about EQs?
We’ve got a GML 8200, which is one of the greatest EQs ever. We use it on every session. I would be really pissed if we didn’t have that. That’s my favorite for sure.
In the B Room, we have a Manley Massive Passive and the Manley Pultec EQP-1A that we use on bass. That's a great piece. We have a pair of the Kush Electra 500 EQs, and those things are great. They’re fantastic, and they’re really affordable EQs. We use them on horns a lot, and vocals. They’re very musical on vocals.
The Rupert Neve Designs 5033s, which are the 5-band parametric EQs they put out for the Portico series. They are some of the best EQs I’ve ever used. We have three and I wish we had more. Those things are awesome.
7. What about compressors?
I’m a huge fan of really simple gear. The fewer options, the better for me. For compressors, we mostly just have the classics. We don’t get too crazy. We’ve got a Tube Tech CL 1B. Obviously, the LA-2A. We have three Distressors, we use those on every session.
We have a pair of Shelford 5051s, which are the compressor/EQ modules in the Portico series. Those are fantastic, they’re a mix of old-school Neve compression with the new-school RND design. We have a pair of Neve 33314As, which are these old broadcast Neve compressors. Those are great if you really want to smash the shit out of something.
We have all the Shadow Hills 500 series compressors, the Dual Vandergraph and the Mono Optograph. Those are really great, we use the Vandergraph for parallel drum compression.
8. What’s the quirkiest piece of gear you frequently use?
I’m super into cheap weird FX units. We have three Deltalab Effectron IIs. You used to be able get them for like $60 a piece, but now they’re almost $200 bucks. It's a single rack mount digital delay unit. It’s really easy to use and we're kind of obsessed with them.
9. How did you decide on your Rupert Neve Designs 5088 console in Studio A and the Trident 80B in Studio B?
Well, we had that Neotek Series III for like seven years. It had a lot of issues. I loved that console, and I miss it, but the logic on that console was shot so when you turned it on, some things would mute for the entire session. It got to a point where we couldn’t mix on it.
Tracking with the Neotek was fine for what it was because we were basically going straight from our mic panel into outboard pres because the pres on that desk were shot from day one so we ended up buying a bunch of outboard gear. The EQs on the Neotek were great so we used those a lot, but it was essentially just a giant return console.
We would use the EQs then go to outboard gear, then straight into Pro Tools, then out of Pro Tools to the console, so it was basically just a giant monitoring control. We would print the stereo bus back to Pro Tools for the mix, but after years of messing with it, it started to degrade and we couldn’t track the way we wanted to.
When we decided to buy a new console, I was definitely not going to buy a used console. For a couple of reasons. One, I couldn’t afford to get a good used console. I didn’t have $100k or $150k, so as much as I wanted to get an old API or Neve, or a small SSL or something, it just wasn’t going to work out. We looked into getting a new Elite, but at the time with a patch bay, it was like $80k.
Basically, it came down to console companies making new desks in our budget, which were the API 1608 or Rupert Neve Designs 5088. I asked my Vintage King rep Jacob Schneider (who's amazing, I love him to death), if there was anywhere I could go and see both of these consoles because I’m not going to spend $80k with something I can’t put my hands on. We’re in Arizona, so there’s nowhere for us to go do that.
Jacob said we could go to Texas where Rupert Neve Designs is based. He said they were having a party at this studio in Texas. All of the dudes from RND were going to be there so I could ask them questions. Oh, and Rupert Neve was going to be there too… So, we weren’t about to pass that up. There was another studio nearby with an API 1608 and he said we could swing by and check it out.
We did this crazy slingshot trip to Texas where we only had a day to drive there, a day to look at shit, and a day to drive all the way back, which was like 14 hours. So I took a couple staff engineers with me and we went to this crazy studio in Texas called Blue Rock to see this console.
Basically what happened was, the guys from RND were really great people. We were just a couple of punks from Arizona and they took time out of their day to show us what was going on, and the studio was beautiful. Rupert Neve himself came into the room and took like 35 or 40 minutes to talk to us about his console and how it’s the console he always wanted to build.
The two guys that were with me were too nervous to speak, so they were useless. Iit was just me stuck talking to Rupert Neve, which was amazing, but Rupert Neve does not need to sell his gear, at all. The fact that he was like "Oh, here’s a bunch of crusty young punk weirdos from Phoenix that are possibly going to buy a console," and he took the time to talk to us about it... We were just immediately sold.
The console was beautiful, it was exactly what we were looking for. It felt really solid, looked really good, sounded incredible, and Rupert Neve was like "Yeah, this is the console I always wanted to make, and can I answer any questions for you?" It was kind of like “Take my money!” It was a no-brainer with the 5088. It just felt right. Everyone involved was super helpful and they were really great people. They were really inviting, like "Let’s go have dinner!" It was a really personal experience. We didn’t even go look at the API 1608.
It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. RND is a really small company. If you call them you’re going to get one of the same five dudes. There’s one guy between whoever answered the phone and the guy that built the console, and maybe he’s going to answer the phone. That was the kind of experience we were going for. The console is amazing, but it’s not even about that, it’s about the people behind it for us. Like, Rupert Neve took the time for us, which he totally didn’t need to do.
10. You also co-edit Pink Noise Magazine, a publication dedicated to spreading diversity in the recording industry. How did that come to life?
Pink Noise was the brainchild of Allen Farmelo, who is this amazing engineer out in New York. He’s got a cool spot at his place in the Hudson Valley with a custom API. We became friends at a conference in like 2008/2009.
Allen gave this amazing keynote presentation about analog audio. We hit it off and he ended up calling me out of the blue about this idea he had for a magazine. He’s way more of a feminist than I am or ever was. He wanted to do a new publication about the recording industry with no ads that wasn’t just gear reviews.
We weren’t really happy about gear companies steering recording magazines in certain directions, and didn’t like what we were seeing in terms of how gear ads were presented. It was an interesting time.
He wanted to make Pink Noise about diversity in audio, technical things in audio, people talking about the hopes and fears of engineers. He wanted to take the ego and gear-speak out of it, and write really honestly about the industry. He wanted to take on the biggest companies in the audio industry. I was the first person to be like “This is a cool platform, but let’s not rock the boat too much…"
That’s how it started. He wanted me to do the interviews and do some editing. I had literally zero experience with that stuff so I turned him down. I was like "I don’t know anything about this" and he said, “That’s perfect! That’s exactly what I want!"
It was a platform for Allen to write about what he wanted to write about and get people on board. We did some cool stuff and then we both got super busy so we had to put things on indefinite hiatus. Everything is still up there for people to read though.
The response was great. We got a ton of emails from women, which was great. We got a ton of emails from parents who were like “I didn’t want my kid to get into this industry because of the way women are treated, but after reading this I’ve changed my mind.” We also got a lot of pushback, of course.
11. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman in the recording industry?
The issue is being singled out as a women in audio. That’s the problem, we're a commodity. It’s a chicken and the egg thing. Most of us all know each other because we all get asked to do the same "Women in Audio" panels. If we don’t do them, we’re not addressing the issue, we’re not inspiring other women. There’s not a big platform for women to see other women doing those things, so we almost feel obligated to do it, but that also feeds into the problem. We wouldn’t put together audio panels based on something like race, so we shouldn’t do it for gender either. Why don’t we just have a panel for "People in Audio?"
What we need is for women to be included. We need to stop singling women out in professional fields, that’s the issue. They’re doing that because they’re trying to support us, it’s not a backhanded thing. But they can support us by including us, not by singling us out. We want to be included because we’re professionals, and because our opinions are respected. We want to be a part of the community because of the work we do, not because we’re women.
For me personally, I don’t really think about it. I just go to work. There have been some difficulties because I'm a woman, but it's always a shock to me. People show up for walkthroughs and think I’m the PR girl, or they won’t shake my hand and I’m like “What the fuck?” Then I realize it's because I’m a woman. It's always a big surprise.
Back in the day, when I bought my first round of gear for the studio, the guy I got it from was like “Why do you want buy this? Who are you? Where are you from?" He didn’t take me seriously because he didn’t think I was qualified. Like, how is my money any less green?
He sold me two really fucked up pieces of gear, which at the time was terrible, but now I’m thankful because it was a great lesson learned. I needed to find a company that treated me with the same respect as any other client. I’ve been with Vintage King for over 10 years now. They’ve always been super helpful.
Sometimes when I’m teaching, students will get up and ask another teacher a question because they’re a dude. Or if I’m forced to go to Guitar Center, I’m always stoked because I know the sales guy is going to try to mansplain some shit to me and I can ask him a bunch of questions about stuff he can’t answer [Laughs].
12. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
Shop for records most of the time. I’m a huge record collector. My therapy is crate digging and listening to weird podcasts. If I’m not in the studio, I tend to be listening to weird stuff. Most of the time, it's just hanging out with my dog. I like to travel but it's mostly for audio.
13. What’s your favorite place to eat?
There’s this Vietnamese restaurant in Oakland called Pho Vy that I eat at all the time. I love exploring different foods in different places. I love eating in Memphis, the BBQ is great and you can’t really find it anywhere else. I'm a huge fan of the food in Tennessee.
14. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
A tie between Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Autobiography of a Yogi, the Paramahansa Yogananda book. George Harrison had a stack of them in his apartment and he would just give one to anyone who came over. I’m not a huge Beatles fan, but I love George.
15. What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?
I think that answer changes as you age. When I was younger Meat is Murder by The Smiths was my favorite record. Nowadays, Ambient 1: Music for Airports by Brian Eno is up there. If you asked me tomorrow it would be a different list [Laughs].
I also love the John Lee Hooker record called It Serves You Right To Suffer. It’s an early blues record. I have an old mono copy on vinyl that I love to death. There’s a self-titled record by King Floyd that I love. It’s this hard-hitting soul record from the early 1970s. Oh, and Remain in Light by Talking Heads.
16. What’s one record you wish that you had worked on?
Any of those I just listed [Laughs]. I would have loved to have lived in a period where making records was strictly a technical job. In the 1950s, engineers came to work in lab coats. Gear was really straightforward. They had a tape machine, a simple console, everything was well built, they had a couple EQs, a fuck-ton of Neumann U67s, U47s, M49s and RCA 44s.
They just put everyone in a room and made awesome records. You couldn’t make those records sound bad because the artists had to be so good. Everyone who came in had to be really good. Anything from the 1950s, any of the Motown stuff in the 1960s. Just shove everyone in a tiny room, put up some decent mics and make a record. That would have been the time to be there. Well, maybe not for a woman...
17. Who do you think is making great records right now? What new music have you been listening to lately?
Matt Ross-Spang is killing it right now. He’s making a lot really great country and Americana records. Jeff Powell is doing a lot of great mastering. He’s doing all of the reissues for the Al Green singles. They’re making really great records at Sam Phillips Recordings, which was all redone due to water damage.
Shawn Everett is making incredible records. He did that Alabama Shakes record, and he also did the War on Drugs. That guy is doing some great fucking shit. His records sound super warm and organic, I'm really into it. Vance Powell always makes great records too.
18. What has changed most about your engineering technique over the years?
It’s gotten way, way, way more simplified. When you’re young and you don’t have any mentors or role models you try to do all the things, all the time. I noticed that with a few staffers that came in. They’re like, "Let's put every mic on the source, EQ the shit out of everything and use ALL the gear!” It’s one of those things where you feel like you have it, so you have to use it. Like a source straight to tape isn’t good enough? When you’re young that's easy to do.
Eventually, you realize you didn’t need to do all that until you have to make a full LP in two days [Laughs]. You don’t have the time to get into it, so you get the best signal at the source. That mentality came from transitioning into doing less in the studio.
We used to do everything live and now we overdub everything with total isolation. Then it moved away from that and now we’re back into making live records. As those trends happened and budgets disappeared, we started making more live records.
In that environment, you don’t have time to get crazy. You put up the best mics and get the best tone at the source and fucking print it. I did that a few times out of necessity and it sounded great.
19. If you could go back and change one thing about your journey, what would it be?
That’s easy to answer. I wouldn't have stayed in Arizona. Arizona is my home and in my life, and I’m OK with that. My parents lived here, my dad is in his 80s, so it’s good to be close to family. Living in Arizona is a cheap and easy way to be. I own my gear and my home which is great, and I don’t have to work every day, even though I would like to [Laughs].
Because I stayed in Arizona I didn’t have any mentors. I didn’t go to a studio and learn from somebody in Nashville or LA or New York or anything. I had to figure it all out on my own. It would have been great to have a mentor. I'm in a weird spot where I’m older and more established, so it’s weird to pursue that now. I still try, I bother my friends about it all the time [Laughs].
20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?
Don’t be an asshole. That’s it! Just don’t be a dick! At the end of the day, people just want to work for people who are kind, patient, understanding and down to earth.
Also, be kind to yourself. Don’t put yourself in a position where you’re mistreated. I think that’s really hard for engineers to do too. You’ve got to let go of the boys' club bullshit that's such a part of the industry and not come at things with that mentality.
It's getting better now, but it's still really prevalent. We don’t treat ourselves well. We drink and smoke and we’re stressed out all the time because we're working on shit we don’t get paid enough for, or working with people who aren’t treating us well. So, be kind to others, and be kind to yourself.
Check out some of the music to come out of Catherine Vericolli's Fivethirteen Recording Studios by listening to the SoundCloud playlist below.
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