Make Your Mark With Tucker Martine

Nashville native Tucker Martine has been living in the Pacific Northwest for over two decades, working with the likes of The Decemberists, The Avett Brothers, Neko Case and Thao & The Get Down Stay Down. While he has spent time in a number of studios, Martine has continued to look for a permanent home for his personal recording studio. He thinks his latest space is just the right fit.

"My studio is called Flora Recording And Playback and this will be its fifth and final incarnation," Martine says with a laugh. "It's not quite finished yet, but it's finished enough."

Taking a break from the build-out, Tucker Martine sat down to chat with Vintage King about his style of production, the sonic influence of Daniel Lanois, and his studio's forthcoming reverb chamber. Watch our new Mark Your Mark below and continue on afterward for an extended interview and some prime examples of Tucker's excellent work in the studio.

When did you become such a big fan of API consoles?
When I was in Seattle, which is where I learned recording, people started taking me to different studios when I was just starting to figure out what I was doing. A couple of the main studios I liked to work at in Seattle had API desks and those were some of the first records I came away realizing, "This sounds like a record." I’m doing the same thing I was doing in my basement with my Mackie and cheaper mics, but now it sounds like a record. So API was just my first love in that way.

Many, many years later, when Stuart Hallerman at Avast! was selling his API to get a bigger API, I happened to be doing a session there. I was kind of outgrowing my Neotek. It had its issues and maintenance problems and it was time. I was able to buy his API, which I had made a lot of records on. Every time I left [the console], I just felt like a million bucks. I felt like it made my job easier and made me look better because it was giving me back everything I put in and more.

What are some of your favorite microphones and how do you approach using them during a session?
I usually like to set-up a handful of microphones before an artist comes in. If it’s going to be vocals, I like to put an array out. Maybe five different mics that cover the spectrum from beautiful old Telefunken 47s to SM7 and the Audio-Technica 4050. It’s totally different sounding and every once in a while it just pairs well with a voice that doesn’t quite sound right on a 47 or even a 67. I’ll usually put up a 67 too and then I like to put a ribbon out there. Maybe a 44 RCA, the newer ones tend to be a bit quieter, they sound fantastic. Usually, you can just kind of tell right away,  what’s a special choice for that voice.

I’ll do the same, maybe not as many mics, on acoustics. I like the [Neumann] KM84s on acoustic guitars, as well as the AEA N22, which has been more of my go-to lately. It’s a little bit rounder on the top, more likely to not ping you if the player plays harder.

How did you come to create the startup and branding sounds for Microsoft Vista?
This guy that I knew a little bit at Microsoft had come to see my band, I had this instrumental, pretty experimental band called Mount Analog. This guy was a lover of strange music and he was one of a small handful of fans, and he was the guy in charge of overseeing the next Microsoft startup sound.

He reached out to me and a lot of other people to submit demos or ideas. I got together with one of my buddies from Mount Analog and started sending him weird sounds. They had to be three seconds long. That’s how long the sound is from beginning to end. It’s kind of a trip to sit around and figure out a lot of different ways to approach a three-second composition. Remember, that three seconds includes all the decay, it’s not like a three-second thing that play and decays for another three seconds.

We just took the challenge and had fun with it. Somehow, we ended up at the finish line with Robert Fripp. They had me and my friend Steve in one room at Microsoft and Robert Fripp was in another room, and they just kept having us do stuff and they would bring in these committees of people in every couple hours and they would just listen. “Yes, that sounds pretty fresh,” and somebody would say “Can it be more blue?” So we’d be like, “Yeah, of course. We can make it more blue.” And they would leave, and we would mess around with it and they would come back, and we’d play it for them and the blue person was really happy now because it sounded more blue. Then somebody else would want it to dip down, instead of arch up.

We gave them a million options, and at the end of the day, they would just take all the files and deal with it. One day, the thing came out and apparently it was a collaboration between us and Robert Fripp, who I never got to meet. I didn’t recognize anything about the startup sound. You know what though, it was a cool experience, one I probably don’t need to have again.

Talk about your approach to field recordings and how you’ve applied those concepts to projects you’ve worked on.
I love field recordings for so many reasons. It’s the antithesis of studio recordings. You have no control over the environment that it’s in. You don’t have separation, it’s already all mixed. In field recording, you usually have headphones on and you can hear the stereo field very vividly and you just move the mic a half inch this way or a couple inches that way and it completely changes the stereo picture. Then when you capture a moment, if you do capture a moment, it’s done. All decisions have been made.

It’s unlike when you've tracked a song with a band and there are still infinite options, too many options. That’s something I really love about record making; trying to make as many decisions as early in the process as you can because everybody gets overwhelmed by having too many options. With the way technology is today, there are more options than ever. You never really have to commit until the mix is done. Even then, with mixing in the box, people feel like they don’t have to commit. They can say they like the mix, but they know they can call back in a month when they change their mind.   

You’ve worked with a lot of the same bands time and time again, what do you think it is about your style of work that keeps them coming back?  
I don’t really fully have the perspective to answer why people come to me to make a record, and I feel like I shouldn’t ask too many questions about why they do. I just try to stay within what I do and what feels unique.

Whenever I try to do what others do well, the records don’t sound good. They don’t have anything special about them and I don’t get artistic satisfaction. I think the bands probably aren’t as happy either. I think that’s where the mojo is, They want to know “What’s the way that you do it?” I know when I’m off track and I try to call myself out on it. Whatever it is I do when I’m not thinking too much about it is what these artists like.

What advice would you give an up and coming engineer, something that you wish someone told you?
My advice for young people might be different than others because I’m self-taught and I wouldn’t change anything about my path. I say “Self-taught,” which doesn’t mean that I haven’t learned from a million people, but I didn’t go to school for this.

I’m a big proponent of just do it all the time. Make recordings and compare your recordings to records that you love. If you really connect with a piece of equipment, stick with that. Find the gear that speaks to you, that inspires you. You can do a lot with just a few really useful pieces of gear.

Figure out what’s unique about you. Don’t try to make records that sound like other peoples’ records because there are no shortages of people who can record a record for somebody. If you have your own unique take on record making than you’re more likely to have a career and enjoy that career.

If you'd like to hear some of Tucker Martine's work in the studio, check out the tracks below from The Decemberists, The Avett Brothers, My Morning Jacket, and his own band, Mount Analog

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