“The First Line Into Producerville”: Scene Dissection, Featuring Bricktop Recording’s Pete Grossmann

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This is the second installment in a series exploring what makes a heavy music scene tick. I will be interviewing the people in Chicago who take on tasks beyond playing in a band: promoters, visual artists, audio engineers, writers, etc. We’ll learn about what it takes to build a thriving music scene and what motivates people to devote their time, effort, and expense when financial rewards and even appreciation are scarce. This time I am talking to producer Pete Grossmann of Bricktop Recording.

Pete paid his dues in the Chicago-area music scene by playing in hardcore and metal bands like Undo Tomorrow, 2*Sweet, and Left Hand Path. Along with Weekend Nachos guitarist Andy Nelson, Pete founded Bricktop Recording in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood in 2007. A 500 square-foot live room stocked with vintage gear, analog and digital recording equipment, reasonable rates, and the owners’ deep roots in local metal and hardcore made the studio a hotbed for Chicago’s heavy music scene. An in-house gear repair shop run by Dean Costello of Disrotted doesn’t hurt either. Some of Pete’s past clients include Immortal Bird, Weekend Nachos, Like Rats, Jar’d Loose, Trials, and Mexican Werewolf. I met him at a bar down the street from Bricktop for a couple Sunday afternoon beers, and we discussed his experiences recording bands, some of his favored techniques and gear, and the state of audio production as a business.

Jason Kolkey: If someone asked you to describe what you do, would you tend to say, “audio engineer” or “producer”?

Pete Grossmann: It depends who I’m talking to. If it’s just a general person, I’ll say “audio engineer,” but if I know I’m talking to a musician I’ll say “producer,” or “engineer,” or something along those lines.

What do you see as the difference between those roles?

I wouldn’t say there’s so much of a difference, and even when I’m engineering there’s a degree of producing that’s going on most of the time, if it’s something as little as giving feedback as to whether their takes are good or not. That’s kind of like the first line into Producerville. But it depends. If I’m full-out producing something, I’m really giving a lot of input, almost becoming a member of the band for the project. So usually I lie somewhere in between, depending on what the band wants. Sometimes it’s just like, “Cool these guys have their shit down,” and I just have to capture it and facilitate the environment. Sometimes it will be as much as helping come up with parts or playing parts. So it varies widely depending on the band.

How did you learn your trade as an engineer?

I bought my first recording rig maybe about sixteen years ago. One of my old bands had recorded, and I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the results. A lot of it had to do with that we just didn’t sound good in the first place, but I was like, “I bet I could do this.” So I invested in a small recording rig with a computer and everything and then just started recording my own stuff. And by playing in bands and recording my own stuff, everyone was like, “Hey, you did your own record. Cool. Can you do ours?” And I’ve just kinda been doing it since then. So that’s kind of how I got my chops. And then I went to Columbia [College] for it, and kind of furthered it that way, but I already had the idea. I was already recording bands, already renting out studios by the time I actually went to audio school. So that’s pretty much where I started.

Do you think you got much out of going to school?

Yeah, but it’s definitely a field where it’s not required. I mean, a lot of the best engineers I know didn’t go to school for it. But it was cool. I needed to get a degree in something, and I’m like,”Well, I might as well learn as much about this craft as I can,” stuff I wouldn’t have learned: a lot of technical stuff, a lot of background stuff.

Could you give an example?

You have to go through the background of electronics and actually how the microphones work, how signal flow [works], how to get something from microphone, to line level, to speaker level. You get little dabbles of acoustics, you get dabbles of electronics. You get the actual engineering itself, being able to work on sessions in a classroom, controlled setting where there’s no risk. That’s where a lot of the benefits came from, but you still don’t learn taste. You don’t learn specific genre niche things. There’s no substitute for real-world experience. But it gives you a lot of the building blocks where if you have potential, you’ll have the tools to do something with it.

Having all this cheap, easily accessible home recording equipment obviously makes it easier for you to learn the craft. What does it do to the professional recording studio as a viable business?

It’s a two-way street. In a lot of moments it’s really great, because artists come to me with better-sounding demos. On top of that, I do a lot of projects where bands will cut drums at the studio, they’ll take it home, they’ll do all the guitar and bass direct, and then they’ll come back with all the performances and the raw tracks and we can reamp them. So it’s turned out to be a great kind of a hybrid setting in a lot of regards. I know it’s definitely had somewhat of a negative impact on certain studios, but overall it’s great. It’s a democratization of being able to [say], “Hey, I’m a musician and I just need to be able to jot my ideas down.” And when people want to take it one step further and let someone who does it for a living take control, you get the best of both worlds in some aspects.

Is how you approach recording heavy bands in any way different from, say, a standard rock band?

No. It varies band to band, because there’s great differences between even different subsets of heavy bands, but I tend to go for a more organic-sounding, more real-sounding approach, [when] a lot of metal production has gone in the complete opposite direction. So that’s kind of where we have our foothold, where we try to make bands sound heavy and in-your-face, but still have a human element to it. We have a pretty raw warehouse space that I feel like is also pretty conducive to having that kind of a vibe. But I have the same approach with a rock band. I’m gonna try to make it sound organic and real, make it sound as powerful as possible, as powerful as I would a heavy band.

So you play guitar; do you play any other instruments?

I play guitar, bass. I dabble with keys and stuff like that, but I wouldn’t say I’m any sort of piano player; just enough to jot ideas down.

How do you think your experience playing in bands and being a musician affects your presence and influence in the studio?

Oh, it’s absolutely integral, I would say, because I’ve been a musician maybe just a little bit longer than I’ve been recording myself. So the two come hand-in-hand. I know the process. I’ve been through the writing process and recording process as a musician, so I try to take my perspective on that into consideration. It molds my taste. I get where you’re coming from.

What record have you worked on that you’re proudest of?

Oh, man, that’s a loaded question.

It is.

Laughs. Man, I’m proud of all my work. I guess the most recent record that comes to mind is probably the Immortal Bird record that I recently did.

That’s good.

Colin Marston from Gorguts mixed it, so it was really awesome.

Colin Marston from, like, twenty bands.

So yeah, that’s one in particular…I didn’t mix it, but that’s a record that after I heard his work on it, I was like, “Holy shit. This is fucking sweet.”

Was there anything special or different about that session as opposed to others you’ve done?

It pretty much felt right in the studio, like everything else. We knocked it out pretty quick, in five days straight, just non-stop. Other than that, it was just a cool melding of a lot of different subsets of metal and hardcore and whatnot.

Is there one you’ve done that you think people have overlooked that maybe deserved more attention?

Maybe the Nequient EP. Laughs.

Laughs. No pandering.

It’s hard for me to answer that, because I can’t really say what I’ve done recently that’s been overlooked more than something else. It’s hard to gauge that type of thing.

Well, with the Immortal Bird one, I think people have responded really positively. I’ve seen a lot of coverage out there talking about how great that record is, so if there’s another one you feel like maybe was on par, but isn’t getting covered in Decibel and on MetalSucks.

Yeah, well, Trials is another one that came out right around that time. They’ve gotten a lot of good, positive reviews on that record. That record turned out awesome. Your EP, the Mexican Werewolf EP; what else? That’s stuff that was recent that I can think of.

Now I’m going to run through different instruments, and you tell me how you approach working with that instrument in a recording session. So, let’s start with drums.

Cool. Once the drummer’s all set up…I tend to go for a pretty room-focused sound, so I set up usually several sets of room mics on top of close mics to just kind of let the drums in the room be the basis of the sound. Depending on the band, some bands require a drier, tighter drum sound, and others want mostly room. So I tend to approach drums from what it sounds like with the drummer in the room, and I highlight certain aspects of it that will make it punch or come through the mix or not come through the mix or whatever it needs.

You’ve mentioned that you prefer an organic sound; do you ever work with triggers, or do you just hate them?

I mean, I don’t hate them in any regard. I’ve used them a lot in the past. They’re not my first weapon of choice. I actually can’t think of anything in the last year-and-a-half or two years that I’ve actually put any sort of sample replacement on. And if I do, I always have drummers take hits at the end of the session, so if I do need to get a little more punch out of the snare or kick I have the actual track so it won’t sound as fake. I don’t hate ‘em, but it’s not my first call. If I really need [triggers] I’ll use it, but that’s pretty much it.

Bass?

I’ll always take a direct track of the bass. I usually don’t use it very much in the mix. And then, as far as the bass tone goes, I’ll usually set up one or two mics on top of that with whatever me and the bass player decide upon. We have a ton of heads and a couple cabs we’ll cycle through. I’ll see what the bass player wants, or if he has gear we’ll do a shootout and see what combination gives us the best result.

Guitar?

I’ll have the guitar player set up. Sometimes guitarists will come in and be like, “Hey, I know you have this amp. I want to work with this amp.” Or they’ll come in with their own piece of gear, and I’ll maybe offer them suggestions like, “Hey, let’s do a shootout. Let’s try this versus this versus this.” Very similar to bass, where I’ll throw a couple mics up after we figure out what  kind of cab we wanna use and then we’ll just filter through different head and pedal combinations until we get something we’re all stoked on.

Clean vocals?

Again, I’ll do a shootout. I’ll put up a couple of my choice vocal mics. If I know the band or worked with them before, or judging from their last recordings, I’ll get the sound of their voice in my head and take an educated guess on what might work best on them and shootout one or two different mics and then just dial it in.

Do you do “unclean” or metal vocals any different?

It depends. That’ll hinge on whether the vocalist wants to hold the mic or he’s comfortable with a pop screen and a nicer stationary mic. So it boils down more to their preference. I’d rather have a dude hold a mic and run around if that’s what he wants to do, versus just standing in front of a mic and having shellshock or something, just like,”Ehh, I don’t like this.”

It’s scary.

Most of the time when we’re doing screaming vocals and whatnot we tend to fuck up the sound and get it distorted and gnarly, so you don’t need a nice, thousand-dollar condenser mic in front of them. So it’s cool, just give them a handheld and let them rip. It’ll be all good as long as the vibe is there.

What is your favorite piece of gear in the studio?

I would have to say my Soldano Avenger head. That’s by and large my favorite to play out of personally, and a lot of guitar players that come through end up using that and are usually pretty stoked on it. I don’t think I’ve had anyone plug in and be like, “No, I hate this.” Everyone plugs in, and they’re like, “Oh, sweet. This is cool.” Like anything from a rock band to a death metal band, that amp covers any heavy or crunchy guitar sound, and it’s pretty receptive to different pedals. Anything you put in front of it, it just kind of highlights.

Otherwise, our drumset is probably my favorite to record. It’s a maple custom Shine kit from a buddy of mine who plays in Like Rats. That’s also another indispensable piece that gets used very frequently.

What are your feelings on analog versus digital?

They both have their place. We have a pretty hybrid workflow where when I’m tracking a band I’m using whatever analog gear we have going into it, getting a lot of the sonic characteristics of our gear. And then both Andy and I basically strictly mix in the box, just because we’re always shuffling through several projects at once, and the benefits of digital are the easy recallability and quick workflow and everything. And analog has its place because it’s still king. So we approach it with a mixture of the two; we try to reap the benefits of both workflows.

You don’t have to name any names if you don’t want to, but I’d like a story about a difficult session. You can take that in any way you want, whether it was technically challenging or difficult personalities to work with.

There’s always a challenge. That’s a good one.

[Break to order the second round of beers.]

I haven’t had any devastatingly challenging sessions in a long time. But several years ago I worked with a pop-punk band that was from out of town, and they were just really young and didn’t have any of their shit together. Laughs. So [my buddy Justin and I] were hired to produce them. And it was the type of thing where we had to get behind the drumset and were like, “We just want you to play this.” And I’m not a drummer; he’s not a drummer. And then [the drummer would] get behind it, and it sounds like he’s falling down stairs. It was just kind of a mixture of everyone…it took a lot of coercing.

Did you learn anything from that experience?

Yeah. I learned to appreciate when musicians come in, and it’s just like, “Oh, cool, just mic them up.” A lot of times there’s situations where I just put up mics, on the drummer for instance, and I’m not completely screwing things up all the time. This dude has it down. So yeah, there’s been times like that, but none in recent memory that have been like, “Oh, my God.” I’ve been very fortunate to have people come in with a serious work ethic and preparation behind them.

Do you have any musical projects you’re working on yourself right now?

Yeah, after this I’m going and we’re tracking vocals and demoing some new songs. I’ve got a new kind of sludgy, kind of stoner rock band, kind of in the vein of Goatsnake, Church of Misery, and stuff like that, which I’m going to be playing guitar in, but I’m playing guitar and bass on these recordings. That’s pretty much what I’m up to now. We’re currently recording an EP and then hopefully put it out sometime by the New Year.

Does it have a name?

So far we’re going by High Priest. It’s myself, Dan Polak, and John Regan, who are currently playing in Like Rats, and then my friend Justin who’s singing. We’ve all kind of been in bands throughout the past ten or fifteen years pretty consistently.

How about on the recording side? Do you have anything you’d want to plug?

Yeah, I’ve got plenty. Currently finishing up a full length with Without Waves. We have one song left to go on vocals, so in the next couple weeks we’ll hopefully be wrapping that up. It’s really awesome. Just finished up tracking a band called Of Wolves; they’re doing another full length, so I’m going to get started mixing that pretty soon. I’m finishing up mixing kind of a thrash/death metal band called Air Raid. And then I just finished up mixing an EP for a band called Short Fuse. They kind of remind me of a No Warning style of hardcore, so they’re pretty sweet. That’s pretty much a good chunk of recent finishings and almost being finished albums.

Do you have any plans or ambitions as far as moving Bricktop Recording forward?

Yeah, absolutely. We’re currently in the process of building our second studio. It’s basically an overdub and mixing suite, so Andy and I can cycle in and out a lot quicker. So that’s the big project that’s happening. Then after that, we’re going to actually build in our lounge area. So for those that have not been there, it’s basically a studio and then there’s an open warehouse with something resembling a kitchenette. So we’re going to try to build that in, and have more of a cozy studio type of vibe. And outside of that, there’s always little tweaks to the live room we’re planning on making, gear acquisition, and stuff like that. So that’s pretty much where we’re at.

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