A version of this interview with Erin Tonkon was previously published in PLAYBACK Issue 002. Be sure to check out the entire issue here.
Erin Tonkon broke into the world of engineering at a young age and started learning under the best at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. During her studies, the budding engineer began working with production legend Tony Visconti and the duo were at the helm for releases from David Bowie, Esperanza Spalding and The Damned. Erin has continued to amass an incredible discography of work, including mixing albums for Sad13, Richard Hell, Rosie Tucker, Lady Lamb and more. Read on to get the inside scoop on five favorites from Erin's career so far.
David Bowie - Blackstar
I began working for Tony Visconti in May of 2013 and my first day on the job was my first time meeting David Bowie. He welcomed me with open arms and I was in the room with Tony and David from that day forward. We first worked on bonus tracks from The Next Day followed by a commercial for Louis Vuitton and some extra tracks for the Nothing Has Changed compilation. By the time we started working on Blackstar, I was accustomed to Tony and David’s workflow and relationship.
The concept from Blackstar was definitely a genre shift in true Bowie fashion. I first saw the idea of using jazz players trickle in after the first version of “Sue (or In A Season of Crime)” was done with the Maria Schneider Orchestra. This is when Bowie was first introduced to Donny McCaslin whose band played on Blackstar. We were listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah at the time and those records were really inspiring to everyone involved.
The basic tracks were done at The Magic Shop, where Tony and I frequented. It was my favorite studio to work at and the infamous “Franken-Neve,” though constantly requiring maintenance, was something to behold. Kevin Killen was at the engineering helm during those sessions and I was able to assist him along with Kabir Hermon. Recording jazz, in general, differs from recording a traditional rock band. It requires more sensitivity and delicacy. That applied engineering sensibility really contributed to the final results of the album and how incredibly detailed and sonically expansive it is. The crew of musicians were top notch and everyone was made to feel free to contribute ideas.
Vocals and overdubs were all recorded over several months back at Tony’s studio where I engineered. I think David is the only vocalist I’ve ever recorded who didn’t need a single note tuned or moved for timing. All that power and character you hear on the record was all him. Tony and I didn’t have to do any secret “touching up” while he wasn’t looking. He was truly remarkable. I always joke about how I never got to see him play a concert, but I got a few years of recording him from feet away, so I really can’t complain.
While much of my engineering work was at their direction, I was also made free to try out some of my own ideas and offer my suggestions and opinions, much of which ended up on the record. We did quite a bit of the mixing as well before bringing the sessions to Tom Elmhirst and Joe Visciano at Electric Lady.
David was involved and hands-on every step of the way, and I was so grateful to be there from hearing the first demos to delivering the vinyl test pressing to his home. I’ve never been more nervous traveling around NYC than when I was riding the subway with that test pressing in my hand.
Richard Hell & The Voidoids - Destiny Street: Remixed
Richard Hell originally recorded Destiny Street in 1981-1982. It’s such a cool record, but by Richard’s own admission, he was pretty checked out at the time. A few years after it was released he wanted to remix it, but discovered the label had lost all the original 24 tracks. Two decades later, Richard found a cassette tape containing just the rhythm tracks of the album on cassette tapes. He later re-recorded vocals and lead guitar for Destiny Street Repaired.
In 2019, Richard got a call from the old Intergalactic Studios, they had found three of the four missing 24 tracks! Richard called Nick Zinner and asked him to help him finally do Destiny Street the justice it deserved. I had met Nick a few years prior working on a Kristeen Young album and we became friends and stayed in touch. Nick called me and asked me to engineer for them and I was really honored. At one point growing up I had both a Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Richard Hell & The Voidoids poster up in my room so this was very cool for me.
We had our challenges cut out for us. We had the original 24 tracks of seven of the songs, but for the three missing songs, we only had the stereo files of the original rhythm tracks from those cassette tapes, and the Pro Tools sessions from the 2009 re-recorded vocals and lead guitars. We wanted the final mixes of the ten songs to sound cohesive, but felt incredibly limited on what we could do with the three poorly mixed stereo versions of the rhythm tracks.
Through much trial and error, I eventually worked out a way that we could use Izotope’s RX Music Rebalance to isolate the drums and the bass from the stereo file. Then, I was able to grab drum samples from some of the other songs, and use a bounce of the “RX Rebalanced” version to trigger the samples via Steven Slate’s Trigger plug-in. Once we had a clean track of kick and snare samples and a fairly isolated bass, we were able to mix back in the original stereo file and still have the same relative balance and mix that we achieved on the other tracks.
Most of this was mixed in the box, but I ran all the drum stems and final mixes through the Dangerous 2 Bus Analog Summing Mixer for some added fatness and warmth. Richard was very involved and encouraging throughout the whole process, and Nick is an incredible producer in his own right. Richard told us he finally has the album he wanted and I’m really proud of how it turned out.
Lady Lamb - Even In The Tremor
When Aly (Lady Lamb) and I first sat down we discussed her vision for the album, the arrangement of the demos and her influences. Aly has a very strong vision of herself as an artist and is a true storyteller. Her songs are jam-packed lyrically and every word is crucial to the story. I didn’t want to get in the way of that so my mindset on this record was to enhance and elaborate upon Aly’s vision while making sure the listener wouldn’t miss a word. The arrangements and engineering really needed to punctuate and support the lyrics.
We recorded the basics with Benjamin Lazar Davis on bass and keys and Jeremy Gustin on drums at Figure 8 Studios in Brooklyn on a Neve 5316 with 33114 mic pres. Jeremy and Ben are extremely talented and versatile players and the environment during those sessions was one of excitement and spontaneous creativity. Overdubs and vocals were recorded at Carousel Studios in Brooklyn (owned by Joe McGinty).
I ran pretty much everything through either my 500 Series API 512V to API 550b or Heritage Audio 1073s and then through a Pete’s Place BAC 500. It’s my trusty little lunchbox that I take everywhere with me. We recorded Aly’s vocals on a Pearl Microphones DT40. It might be my favorite microphone. We utilized a lot of really cool programmed elements that Aly had in her demos and combined that with what we recorded live in the studio. I’m really proud of this record and how it all came together.
Nuha Ruby Ra - How To Move
I met Nuha through some friends in the London music scene. When we decided to do a record together, Nuha came to New York and lived with me for a month. She brought along some rough demos and lyrics and I gathered a bunch of my musician friends in New York who are some of the most creative players I know. We had a couple of practices together where Nuha and I would rework arrangements on the spot. We had Johan Johannson’s soundtrack for Mandy and Grace Jones on heavy rotation at that time.
Basics were recorded at Red Bull Studios in New York. They had a lot of great gear including Neve 1066, 1073, and 33609s that we used heavily. I also tried out that Townsend Labs Sphere L22 microphone on drums and was really impressed by it.
Making this album was a really fun creative experiment. Everything turned out quite David Lynch-ian which I love. My old studio mate at Carousel Studios had a Dewanatron Swarmatron. Nuha and I used that on a lot of tracks. It’s such a unique instrument, it creates a sort of ominous bed of swarming, and perfectly complemented the sonic aesthetic we were going for.
We also achieved a lot of interesting effects, particularly on bass, saxophone and violin using Eventide’s H9 Max pedal. Eventide is in a league of its own when it comes to effects. I use that pedal on most of my productions, and I use their plug-ins on every mix I’ve ever done.
PIXX - Small Mercies
PIXX is a really cool artist from London who I was connected with through 4AD. On Small Mercies, half of the tracks were produced by Dan Carey who works with a lot of my favorite London bands, and half by PIXX’s longtime collaborator Simon Byrt who is really talented. The songs range from grunge, to post-punk to electronic. This variance in genre really excited me as it incorporated a lot of the styles I love, but in a non-traditional way. I strongly feel genre is an antiquated way to define music and am always excited when genre is subverted. The challenge was to make the album cohesive.
I mixed this entirely in the box and predominately used Universal Audio, SoundToys and Eventide plug-ins. In order to create cohesion between the mixes, I established some parameters that I could apply to multiple tracks regardless of their genre in order to create a sonic throughline. For instance, Simon had a really cool vocal effects chain on a few of the tracks he produced which consisted partially of an Eventide H3000, H910, Yamaha SPX90 and a Lexicon PCM 70. I created some slight variances and then utilized a similar vocal effects chain on the songs produced by Dan. It’s not immediately obvious, but it creates enough familiarity between songs to glue the album together. I listen to this album often and think it was highly underrated!