Greg Wilkinson of Earhammer Studios by Christopher Rager

Mar 27, 2014

Drum Recording, Guitar Re-Amping and Other Pieces of Wisdom from the Evil Wizard

Foggy Notion #2

My introduction to Greg “Evil Wizard of Rock” Wilkinson and his Oakland-based Earhammer Studios was through my brother and Neighborhood Brats guitarist, George. Neighborhood Brats, which was previously based in the Bay Area, recorded a good chunk of its releases at Earhammer, and when George started talking about trips from L.A. to Oakland to record there, I was curious to learn more about the studio. It turned out I was already familiar with some of Wilkinson’s credits: Annihilation Time (engineer), High On Fire (mixing engineer), and Pallbearer (vinyl mastering).

I began trading emails with Wilkinson and looked up and listened to more bands that he recorded. As the name suggests, Earhammer is responsible for turning out some heavy tunes: boogie rock (Lecherous Gaze), hardcore (No Statik), and grind/powerviolence (Iron Lung), for example. Wilkinson has a discerning ear that wrangles the heavy and abrasive into something almost hypnotic. It’s like being massaged by heavy guitars. You like massages, right? I spoke with Greg via telephone on Valentines’s Day 2014.

Where were you born?

Greg: I was born in San Leandro, which is the Bay Area/East Bay area. Basically the outskirts of Oakland, California and kinda traveled around the EastBay growin’ up the whole time. I wound up settling in Oakland in the late ’90s, so I’m a native!

Christopher: Describe the moment when you first learned what recording really was and when you discovered it. Did it interest you right away?

Greg: It did interest me right away. The first time I started dabbling with recording, I was about fifteen and I got this Magnavox stereo. It was one of those combo deals with the turntable on top and it had a ¼” input, so I plugged my bass into the input and I could record myself playing a bass line onto a cassette and switch it over to another cassette, play that bass line onto another cassette and then multi-track on this cassette stereo thing. After a while, my mother had a friend who played in a rock band and he had a little four-track cassette deal. He was basically like, “I don’t even use this thing. Maybe your son wants to mess with it.” Then from there, I pretty much locked myself in a room and dicked around with that thing forever—1993-ish, somewhere around there. By the time I got out of high school in ’95, I had upgraded myself to a cassette eight-track. Recording has been pretty much an obsession since my teen years.

Christopher: So you started by recording your own music pretty much?

Greg: I started doing solo stuff and then eventually I had a band in high school that never did anything, but we actually invested in another four-track as a band and we started recording ourselves with that. After that band broke up, I went back to recording my own stuff and anytime I was in a band, we would record in a garage or whatever. Throw up whatever karaoke mics we could get our hands on.

Then in 1998 I was in a two-piece band called Lana Degales. Etay (drummer in Lana Dagales) was like, “Hey, what do you think about going to recording school?” So then we ended up going to school together as a band, and that’s where we started to mess around with two-inch tape machines and really see the power. You know, we always recorded on cassettes and would be like “I just want a little more power, oomph, and clarity to it and I can’t get it off this hissy tape.” You start learning tricks on those cassette ones—the more layers you put on there the more smeared and blurry everything gets and the less power you wind up with. Going to school as a band, we were able to record our demo on a two-inch machine. It was kind of nice!

Christopher: That’s a cool idea to go in as a band and take hold of that knowledge and skill and just bring it directly to your own stuff! Did you work or intern at studios to get more experience?

Greg: I never did. That’s one weird thing. I consider myself really fortunate to actually be in this industry working as a recording engineer not having been an intern anywhere. I kind of always had the ethos of “a little bit all the time.” Coming from a punk background and having DIY ethics, I pretty much was just working between forty and sixty hours a week with whatever day job I had and in the wee hours I’d be messing around with recording and trying to put that money back into my music. With that, I didn’t really have the luxury of interning anywhere. So it kind of skewed my view on recording a little bit.

I think it’s good for people to go intern and learn from somewhere. You know, I actually wound up going and paying for other engineers to record bands that I was in so I could watch processes. That was a way of me kind of learning other ways of thinking about it and reading stuff like Tape Op and learning that way. That was my form of interning. Honestly, the way I learned was from trial and error over and over again. Failure is the best way to learn. And success, of course! After a while you go, “Doing something this way doesn’t work. I know that because I tried it a billion times and it never works.”

Christopher: Was there a session or project that you did where you felt that it was a pivotal moment and that you had such a handle on recording that you could go completely forward with it as a career?

Greg: You know, that’s a good question and, to be honest, I still feel that way all the time. I just recorded the new Noothgrush 7”, basically over the space of two days, and it was just like, “Fuck yeah dude, we nailed it and I feel super good and I learned some more tricks.” But I feel that way so many different times. I just did Lecherous Gaze, the new album that’s coming out, and it was the same feeling where I was listening to the mixes and just going, “Wow, I feel like we tried some new stuff out and like I learned more stuff.” I still feel that way.

It’s really funny. I guess if I had to say a pivotal thing… I think the thing that really sparked the reality that I might be able to become a recording engineer as a job was that Lana Dagales demo, which eventually came out as a 7”. It was a really proud moment for both of us and that was kind of the spark. Hearing it back on wax, it was just like, “YES! We really don’t know what we’re doing and it came out rad!”

So it goes to show that, really, recording is all interpretation. You do have to understand the laws of physicsand, you know, all the different things like phase and all that stuff. But, at the same time, it really is understanding who it is you’re trying to interpret. There’s times where I record and I’m going into it like, “Wow, these tones are really... wow I don’t know about this.” And then, in the end, I go see the band live and I understand, “Oh, that’s why they were recording PA tweeters with wah pedals all the way down with four distortion pedals in front of it—that’s what they want to sound like,” you know? It might not be pleasing, but when you actually hear the music all together it’s like, “Okay, I get it. It’s a lo-fi thing. That’s what they’re going for.”

So I guess that first Lana Dagales 7” was a triggering moment for me. It still took me quite a few years before I became a full-time engineer. I was able to use my school facilities after I graduated to record records there for a little bit. I went to Burnt Ramen, rented that space—just kind of renting spaces out for years, kind of on the side. So that would be ’99 when I actually heard the test pressing of that Lana Dagales record, the pivotal record, I guess.

Christopher: Listening to my brother’s Neighborhood Brats recordings, which were my introduction to what you were doing as an engineer, I never really dissected the production of those recordings, but I always thought they sounded “right.” Like, this is how they should sound. As I went through and listened and re-listened to more stuff you recorded such as Annihilation Time, Brain Oil, Iron Lung, or Asunder, I really started to feel like you have a thumbprint in all of these recordings. Do you agree that there’s a “thing” you’re doing on these records that’s your trademark?

Greg: Yeah, I do think so, for sure. But I guess the best way I can look at is that I look at myself as an artist who’s viewing a painting. The painting being the band’s music and the info. I’m gathering or seeing from their painting is definitely skewed to the way I perceive things. So as things get printed, the way we’re hearing it, there’s definitely a thumbprint because it’s going through my brain, I guess. But really I’m just interpreting what they’re doing. So there’s a trace of my thumbprint but not necessarily an overhaul or production, if that makes sense.

Christopher: I kinda feel like it’s your drum sound.

Greg: That’s important!

Christopher: For any record! But I feel like in the recordings that you’ve done, there’s sort of this room sound—where you can hear the room in your drum sound. The drums are still pretty heavy, but the room sound of the drums stands out, especially when you get into walls of guitars on the left and right. Do you try to keep a cool room sound on your drums? Is that your vibe?

Greg: Yeah, definitely. Quite a few years ago, I started getting really obsessed with drum production and sometimes that room sound that I use in the mix definitely is an audio skewing, especially when I do death metal bands. Obviously I peel and scale that stuff back a little bit, but I still try to incorporate probably more of a room sound that, say, Cannibal Corpse would have. I have hall mics and stuff for the drums that I like to blend into the whole recording. I think distance gives a 3D perception to the drum kit, but if you just have everything tight mic’d and maybe have some overheads, sometimes the drums sound a little too just recorded, I guess, as opposed to the capturing of a real live drum kit. I definitely really pride myself on the hall sounds and the distance sounds with the drum kit. I’m glad you caught that. That’s a pretty big part. Distance is important for me.

Christopher: Do you feel like bands should experiment more with mic techniques in the studio? For punk bands, what do you really think works the best for getting all of the ducks in a row, so to speak?

Greg: It’s strictly individual to the situation of the band. There are a lot of factors you have to find out before you hit record. You’ve got to make sure the drum kit sounds good. I have to make sure that the heads are in good shape, and that it’s all tuned up and ready to go—after sussing out whether the shells are good on the drum kit or not.

I’ve had kids come in with drum kits and they found them on the roof, in a puddle, and I’m not making that story up. It’s actually true! The shells are all warped and it’s like, “Hey, I’ve got a drum kit. Let’s use mine because it’s all ready to go and it’ll save you a ton of money on drum heads and stuff.” So there’s making sure that the drum kit itself sounds good—that’s only fifty percent of the drums. There’s that and making sure the cymbals are in good repair.

But once you get to that point, then you gotta find what the hooks of the band are. Is it that the drummer is totally amazing and that’s what everyone wants to listen to? Or is it maybe the hooks in the guitar riffs that really sell the song? For example, you don’t think of the Ramones and think of the drums being in your face and guitars being in the background. You think of the guitars and the vocals—that’s where the hooks are.

I say this even for punk bands, because there are so many different facets and styles of punk. Some of these drummers are amazing and some of them aren’t that good and that’s okay because it’s punk, and for some of the punk bands I would say that maybe the riffs and drums aren’t that good but the overall vision of what they need to sound like is really cool and interesting. Kind of like a Jackson Pollack of music where it’s this kind of abstract production. And that’s what you’re looking at: the actual abstract production is what you’re paying attention to, not necessarily the riffs.

So those are things out the gate that I look for when I’m producing or recording a punk band. “What is it we are going for?” And who has good command of their instruments? Who doesn’t? You find those parts and pieces of the band—obviously making sure everyone is still heard, because that’s what they’re hearing in the jam space—then you figure out what to accent. Sometimes it’s vocal hooks. But the drums are definitely the vertebrae all the time for me. I want to make sure the drums go down really good so that we’re building on top of this. Everyone else can mess up all they want if the drum takes are really good. You can fix your stuff later if you have to.

Christopher: In the big picture, do you feel like bands can benefit from working again and again with a particular engineer who they worked really well with? Or do you feel like bands jumping around and working with different people can push the music in new ways?

Greg: It’s definitely situational. Some bands can definitely benefit from sticking with an engineer. Some bands can benefit from going around and getting a different light shined on their production if they haven’t been totally sold on what they’ve been putting out. Some bands have a specific influence and there’s a specific sound and they need that production to go in the mold. Sometimes it works better to actually shine a different light on it to give it an individual sound from what they’re actually influenced by. Sometimes it’s just really proper dopper to what they’re writing, and the music holds up best with a certain kind of production.

There are definitely bands I work with who I feel like we have a good synergistic relationship and we know each other really well. We don’t have to converse too much and I don’t have to fish too much with what they’re looking for. I know what they’re looking for, and half the time I don’t even have to say to the guitar player, “Hey, we should put a third guitar track here because this part needs that extra umph.” They already know I’m going to say that. You know, those kind of production calls. They even start writing songs to where they know like, “Hey, I want a lot of hall sounds on this section so we wrote this drum part”—that kind of thing.

That’s the benefit of sticking with an engineer; you start working and playing kinda together with stuff. But then there’s times there’s certain bands I feel like— and other engineers would too—where maybe the band is doing something that’s different than what I want to deal with. Like I don’t understand the specific genre of what you’re dealing with. I can listen to it and listen to other bands like it and try to mimic, but maybe it would be better to jump to that person who recorded it and go with them. That’s kind of the glory of having a bunch of engineers: I think there is the chance of bouncing around and finding the right relationship.

Christopher: Talking about synergistic relationships, I found this song you recorded for Asunder (funeral doom/death metal band from Oakland) called “Whited Sepulcher.” The song starts with this extremely physical WOOODGE of d-tuned guitars and a single kick drum. It’s moments like that where I wonder, “Did that just happen or was that calculated, and then honed in on in the studio?” Do you remember that song in particular?

Greg: I do remember that song. That was recorded so long ago! I think when they wrote that song they did some calculations for some of that. They definitely were a pretty meticulous band as far as their songwriting. But sometimes there are moments where things just line up awesome and you’re like “Don’t re-do that! That’s it.” As far as that part, I feel they partially calculated it, but it just worked out really well. That’s one awesome thing about recording, though. Some things just happen. I’ve had so many bands, and I’ve been in bands, where you come in with a song—kinda like not the song the band is super hyped up to record, you know? Like, “Ah, this song’s okay. We can use it for a comp or it will be buried in one of the sides,” and then all of a sudden all of this cool shit happens and it winds up being the favorite song for the band. I’ve had that happen in my own case a few times where I didn’t necessarily dislike the song, but it’s not as strong because we got a little better at songwriting for the album a little later in the band, or whatever.

Christopher: Talking with George about working with you on Neighborhood Brats recordings, I’ve learned that you do a lot of guitar re-amping (recording a direct signal straight from the guitar to the soundboard and then sending the signal out into an amp at a later time). How did you first get into that?

Greg: I’d say it was probably about four or five years ago I started really hearing and reading about people re-amping their guitars. I had actually tried doing that before, but without re-amping boxes and it never really worked very well. It was just really noisy. When I first started getting into re-amping, it was usually kind of like, “God, that tone sucks. I want to change it,” you know?

That’s what got me interested in it, and after a while it was like, “This is really cool, actually—it’s a really cool, clean way of working.” There are some times where bands need to stand in front of their amps to record and there are some other bands that don’t need to worry about feedback or sustain; it’s just kind of an onslaught the whole time. Sometimes I’ll have guitarists in the control room with me doing guitar solos blasting the monitors and just amp sim’ing (simulating a guitar amp sound within the digital audio work station) it and breaking out solos. Then, it’s like, “Okay, now we’ve done a thousand takes of guitars” and it’s really easy to edit. It’s just one track and I can look at the DI (direct input) wave forms and we can piece together a take that sounds cool. “So now you’re gonna learn it and do it right!” And in the end you can re-amp it and get the tone right.

I think the first thing that really got me into re-amping, now that I think about it, was working with distorted bass guitar players. We’re gonna plug your stuff in and we’re going for it and you start mixing, but it’s like, “You now what I really need? I need more clarity in the bass,” and so, then it’s like, “Hey, let’s run you through a guitar rig and a bass rig and you can blend the two.” Now I can get some nice clean subs to work with for the bass. That’s where I first started getting into re-amping: really beefing up the bass tracks. And then it took me onto all of this other stuff. It’s a cool technology.

Christopher: What’s the longest session, start to finish, you can remember doing? Nonstop.

Greg: Nonstop? I’m going to say Lecherous Gaze was probably one of the longest sessions I can think of. On the first LP we had a deadline and we wound up starting at ten AM, wrapped up at midnight, and then got back together at three in the morning because none of us could sleep. We wound up going until late in the evening that night—it was pretty close to thirty-something hours with a few-hour sabbatical. Almost forty-eight hours, but more like the upper-thirties.

Christopher: Make’s perfect sense with a band like Lecherous Gaze. Wild-eyed, powering through it.

Greg: Yeah, although I do have to say that on this last LP that we recorded, we made sure not to do that again! We were like “NUH UH.”