Tucker Martine has been producing, recording, and mixing artists like REM, My Morning Jacket, and Modest Mouse for over two decades. He currently owns and operates Flora Recording & Playback in Portland, Oregon.
We recently sat down with Tucker and chatted for our ongoing 20 Questions series. Read on to learn more about his favorite EQs, his approach to producing, and his idea for a killer new guitar pedal.
1. How did you get started making records?
Basically, I started playing drums in bands in fifth grade and a couple years later I discovered the cassette four-track, like so many people. I loved messing around with it and making songs with my friends. And also recording my bands' rehearsals so we could listen back and figure out how to be a better band. Then I got interested in how to make those recordings better. It was a lot of late nights as a teen screwing around on a four-track.
I also accompanied my father sometimes to demo sessions in Nashville where I grew up. He’s a songwriter and, sometimes when I was young, there was no one else to watch the kids, so I wound up at those sessions with him. The studio always struck me as some kind of magical place and even though I didn’t always fully grasp the extent of what was going on, I knew it was a place I liked to be. I felt how special it was just to be there.
Then after I moved out of the house after high school graduation, I was working in restaurants and I would buy one little piece of gear at a time. Sennheiser MD421s were the first microphones I bought because I heard they were great on drums and guitar amps, and you could sing into them. They were affordable and they looked cool.
Then when I moved to Seattle at the end of 1992, I started recording people for free on my four-track Teac reel-to-reel tape machine. It was strictly a hobby at that point. I think my dream was to find a band as a drummer, but while that wasn’t happening I was getting better at recording and more and more people were asking me to do it and I was starting to get a little bit more gear.
Eventually, my recording schedule started to conflict with my restaurant and bar working schedule, so I just tapered down and haven’t looked back since. It's been 23 years since I’ve had another job… Knock on wood.
2. You have credits producing, recording, and mixing, but which is your favorite?
I really like it when they all blur together and it feels like everyone puts egos aside for the sake of whatever will make the best record. I feel satisfied if at the end of the day we’ve captured something that feels special. If we get there by me being really hands-on as a producer, that’s fine. If we get there because I think the artist has a really clear vision and I try to facilitate that in as unobtrusive a way as possible, that's just as satisfying.
My favorite thing to do is to see a project from beginning to end. I messed around with producing without engineering, but missed the tactile experience of having my hands on things. It's easier to get what you’re hearing by doing it, rather than explaining it to someone. But I also love to be surprised and hear other engineers' take on something that maybe I wouldn’t do, but I still think it sounds really cool.
3. I know for a long time you've been working with an API Legacy console. What made you choose that desk in particular?
This particular console was at AVAST!, which is a great studio in Seattle that I used to work at a lot before I had a real studio of my own. It was one of the first places where I had experiences working on records where I thought they really sounded good. I was just really excited about the way things sounded, and I noticed I'm still doing the same things I always do, but this sounds a little bit better.
One day, years later, Stuart Hallerman (owner of AVAST) told me he was going to sell it to get a bigger API console from Lenny Kravitz. So he needed to get this one out pretty quickly to make room for it and he made me a pretty generous offer to buy it. At a time, my first child was on the way and I needed to prioritize getting a real space together outside of the house. So, I went for it, I got a loan and haven’t regretted it for a minute.
Before I got it, a lot of great records from the Northwest were made on it too. It’s always fun getting a piece of gear that has a history to it. The first few Fleet Foxes records, a bunch of Modest Mouse stuff, Built to Spill. Just lots of the Northwest rock from the 1990s and 2000s.
Other studios I worked at seemed to have APIs, too. There's a studio in Nashville called House of David, and there’s a studio in Seattle that I worked at called Studio Litho, which is owned by Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam. I always loved the way things sounded coming out of there so I went for it.
4. You have an impressive collection of outboard gear. Can you tell us about some of your favorite EQs?
The first EQ that comes to mind is the Chandler EMI Curve Bender. Sometimes you use EQ to solve a problem, and hopefully, it solves the problem and you move on. But usually, when I go to the Curve Bender to solve a problem, it just makes me smile. It just imparts some really appealing quality to the sound.
I love the Manley Massive Passive, which is fantastic sounding. I’m really happy with Pulse Technology Pultec reissues. The Retro Instruments 2A3, I love that across the mix bus for a touch of highs and whatever might be needed on the low end, but its pretty broad, not very surgical. I use the Massenburg EQ (GML 8200) for surgery, like when you have to get a ring out of a snare or something. That thing is pretty amazing.
5. What about your favorite compressors?
My first love is the 1176. Not the most original choice, but it definitely never lets me down. I have four of them, all different revisions and I love each one of them. All buttons in! When I was 20-years-old and someone showed me all buttons in, I put that on everything for a whole year [Laughs].
I use the Chandler Limited TG1 all the time on the drum bus. I’m a huge fan of that. I don’t know what it's doing or how it’s doing it, but it just makes the drums exciting and in-your-face. Every time I pull it up, everyone in the back of the room starts cheering. I still use SSL G-Series Bus Compressor a lot, just for a couple dB grab on a mix or overheads to keep things in check.
6. What’s an average day in the studio like for you?
Hopefully above average [Laughs]. There really isn’t an average day. You’re either tracking full band or now you’re doing overdubs or now you’re doing vocals or mixing or strings or whatever…
Every artist is different and every pace of a record is different based on how much time you have allotted to make that record. I just try to make sure I show up at 10 every day really, really psyched to solve whatever problems we’re tackling that day.
I have to keep my inner music fan really stoked or else, I’ll start doing the same old things and I'm not as inspired of a producer or engineer. I think it's important that we show up as enthusiastic music fans, which is what got us all into this in the first place. But you can lose sight of that doing it every day for 30 years. If you’re not careful it can become a job, and I definitely didn’t start doing this because I needed job.
7. What’s your approach to producing? Are you more hands-on, or do you let the artist lead?
Honestly, I run the gambit from super hands-on to not much at all. I'm happy to disappear and be a facilitator when I feel like that's where the moment is. Usually, it's a spectrum in between those two things. If I'm going to be very hands-on, I need to be clear why that is and how it's going to make us be more productive and help us get a better result more quickly.
So I don’t need to be extremely hands on just to feel good about myself. I just need to leave each day feeling like we’re really excited about what we’ve captured. It's all over the place. Sometimes the artist is looking at me to be very hands-on at every stage and that's clear. Other times, artists come in and consider themselves producers too, so I want to be respectful of what they’re feeling protective of. I'll certainly challenge them when I think there might be a better idea floating around the room, but it doesn’t have to come from me all the time.
8. A few weeks ago I was chatting with Kevin Ratterman and he mentioned that you introduced him to the RCA BK-5. What other microphones do you find yourself reaching for most often?
The BK-5 is definitely a favorite. It’s remarkably good as a live vocal tracking mic in the room with drums because it has great rejection and what little bleed it does have sounds really good. The BK5 is a favorite for sure.
It’s not the purest mic, but the RCA 44 is the mic I reach for the most. I love it as a room mic on anything. I use it on drums a lot and as a guitar room mic, sometimes as the only guitar amp mic. It’s really great on acoustic guitar as an augment to a condenser, which gives you those bright, airy highs, but won’t quite fill in that low-end like the RCA 44 does.
I recently got a pair of RCA KU-2A. They’re really old, they’re actually the oldest RCA model mics. They’ve become my go-to for drum overheads now. I leave them up all the time and I can’t believe how quiet they are considering they’re from the 1920s. Plus, they’re insanely cool looking [Laughs].
9. What’s the least expensive piece of gear you’ve ever used on a record?
Definitely, some mics I've gotten from "free boxes" in Portland. That's a big thing. I used to walk to the studio every day and I would pass a lot of "free boxes" in the spring. More than a few no-name crappy mics. Some look like shitty little mics for someone's PC or whatever, but I have a box of them and when we need a vocal to sound not very good to contrast some hi-fi stuff, we go digging through that box. I'm a big advocate for the "free box" mic.
10. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done to get a specific sound in a recording session?
I love the distortion the APIs make when the op-amp is blown, so I keep a blown op-amp handy and every once in a while I’ll go find it and put it in the channel and use it. So that’s pretty strange. Someone should make a blown 2520 op-amp guitar pedal haha.
11. What was it like getting a call from Microsoft to compose music for Windows Vista?
That was definitely weird. The guy who reached out to me was a fan of this instrumental project of mine that's been dormant for 10 years. I'm actually just about to put a new record out finally and it’s called Mount Analogue. It’s pretty abstract weird instrumental music, but also just sound and noise.
To the guy's credit, I think he was looking to get somebody for the new startup sound. They had Brian Eno do the sound before me and I think they wanted to keep the tradition of trying to be forward thinking in their choices. I have to say six months later when it was all done, they had just run me through committee after committee and it was all watered down to something generic I didn’t even recognize, even though they gave me credit for it. It wasn't the most rewarding, but it was a noble pursuit.
12. What do you do in your free time, when you’re not making records?
Mostly, I plan the making of more records [Laughs]. I also listen to music, either things I’m working on or just trying to keep up with new music. But I have two kids and a family, so I certainly try to spend as much time with them as I can when I'm not in the studio.
13. What’s your favorite place to eat?
A place called Jack Fry's in Louisville, Kentucky. It feels like you’ve entered a time machine to Paris in the '20s. The atmosphere is unbeatable and the food is the best ever.
Oh, no way! That’s exactly what Kevin Ratterman said when I talked to him!
Yeah, half the time I’ve eaten there was with Kevin. It was always the thing we would get to do when we finished a record or a run of two or three weeks working on a My Morning Jacket record. That place is incredible.
14. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
The one that’s nestled deepest in my heart is Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. I read that book when I was 20, driving all around the country, living in my pickup truck. It was the perfect time to read that.
Steinbeck had such a wide-eyed curiosity about the people of this country and the places, including the small forgotten towns. So I come back to that book every few years. So many things, like books or music we hear in the early years of our lives, they just get in there and can’t be fully replaced.
15. What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?
That is a tough one! One that I come back to a lot, not unlike the Steinbeck book, is an album by Four Tet called Rounds. They just nailed the intersection of electronic and organic music. Every time I hear it, I feel like I'm hearing it for the first time. It sounds so natural, but I don’t understand how it was made, so there's an endless fascination.
Another one I think of is Alice Coltrane Journey to Satchidananda. Rounds was made by a guy in his bedroom with a four-track recorder and a laptop, and Alice Coltrane is four or five people in a room for an afternoon. It just leaps out of the speakers and transports me every time.
16. What’s one record you wish that you had produced?
I try not to think that way because records I love, I wouldn’t want anything to change about them and if I had done it, they would be different. If you told me that I had produced Beck's record Sea Change, I would stand proud. It's a phenomenal record. I use it a lot in new studios to check out a room and speakers. It just ticks every box for me. It's about the songs, but there are also a lot of sonic surprises and earphone treats.
17. Who do you think is making great records right now? What new music have you been listening to lately?
Production and engineering-wise, I listen to Richard Swift. His name pops up a lot on records that I love the sound of. I've gotten to know him a little and I’m highly intrigued by him and his process. He works really quickly and unconventionally.
Everything happens in the same room. A small room with his console, vocals are all live in front of the monitors, usually an SM57 with a sock over it plugged into a Roland Space Echo. He makes really bold choices, not over thought, very intuitive. There's an immediacy to the result that totally sucked me in. I love recordings with a lot of colors and his have a ton. It's really fearless.
Also, Shawn Everett. The last Alabama Shakes record, Sound & Color, that he engineered was incredible. And Nigel Godrich. I can’t not mention him. He’s got some secret sauce.
18. What has changed most about your production style or technique over the years?
I used to eschew reverb. I was meticulously studying Tchad Blake in my early years. He never used reverb. He got all of his room from compression, distortion and room mics. I learned a lot about creating depth of field working that way and working within those limitations.
But about 10 years ago I was working on a mix and thought, “This would sound great with reverb” and I never looked back. But my sensibilities are formed by these years of getting atmosphere without reverb. Analog delays are great for that too. I own an old tube EMT 140 plate that sits normally to Aux 1 and it gets used a lot.
19. What’s one plug-in or piece of gear you can’t live without?
I would have to say my Space Echo 555. When a sound needs more life or to be more interesting, that's a pretty reliable go-to. I love all my different mic pres and stuff, but if you told me I could only have one flavor I would be ok with that, but I would be very sad if you took away my Space Echo…
20. What’s one piece of advice you have for aspiring producers or engineers?
Always let your love for the music guide your decision making, If you make decisions for money, you’ll wake up very unhappy one day.
Tucker Martine has worked on a wide range of music, including folk, metal, indie rock, Americana and more. Continue below to check out a selection of tracks Martine worked on with artists like First Aid Kit, The Sword and The Decemberists.