· 41 min read
Studio as Social Work: Mizmor in Conversation with Sonny Diperri
For our second longform interview, we have A.L.N. of funeral doom giants Mizmor in conversation with his longtime collaborator and producer Sonny DiPerri. Having worked together on both Mizmor full-length LPs "Yodh" and "Cairn", as well as their soon to be announced LP, DiPerri takes A.L.N. through the steps on how to not only effectively engineer a mix, but how to maximize the studio as a social setting for collaborations to occur.
A.L.N.: Hello everybody. Thanks for tuning in today. I am A.L.N. of Mizmor and I'm here with my good friend Sonny DiPerry. Sonny is a recordist, mixing engineer, technician, and producer who has worked with the likes of Portugal. The Man, Animal Collective, M83, 30 Seconds to Mars, Emma Ruth Rundle, Devil Wears Prada, Nine Inch Nails, and My Bloody Valentine. And of course, Mizmor, which is how I know him. So, Sunny, thanks for joining us today.
Sonny DiPerri: Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here.
A.L.N.: Hell yeah, dude. So, let's start with talking about how we came into one another's worlds’. At first, it wasn't in a professional sense, although the reason that we met can still be traced back to our work. I actually don't remember the first time we met, I have a terrible memory. But I know that I met you because of my brother, Ryan Neighbors, who used to be in the band Portugal. The Man. And you have done quite a few records for them and I believe you guys first met working on In the Mountain in the Cloud...
SD: That's where I first met Ryan, yeah…I actually remember the first time you and I met.
A.L.N.: Okay, tell me about it.
SD: Vividly. We were at…you had a house with Andy. And I forget who the third roommate was, and Ryan said, We're gonna go hang at my brother's place, or I think you were having a cookout or you had a backyard hang or something…
A.L.N.: And do you remember what year this was…by chance? Because there were rooming houses for me.
SD: We were recording Holy Land for Hustle and Drone. It was one of the sessions then. So I would say maybe that was around 2014…?
A.L.N.: Okay, so yeah, we would have lived in the Boise Street House, and Ryan would have lived in our old house, the Francis house.
SD: He was yeah, he was there. I remember the house that you had. You kind of walked in and it was a living room and it was open into the kitchen…
A.L.N.: That's the Boise street house. Andy Black and I lived there with Kento Woolery…and our friend Blake Ferran.
SD: Got it. So before that hang, we went to a show that your other project, Hell, that you have with Matt, or Matt’s project you play in. We went to your show, I think it was in the basement of a bar. And I remember it vividly because I was aware of Hell, prior. And you guys played… I think it was in a basement and all the lights were red…it was sweet. I remember that. And I remember two things…
A.L.N.: I wonder where that was…
SD: it was in Portland, Oregon. I forget the name of the bar. And I remember all the lights being red and seeing mainly Fender amps on stage.
A.L.N.: Yeah, that's absolutely right.
SD: Okay. And I thought to myself, this is the most un metal-metal as far as like seeing a bunch of fender combos and stacks onstage.
A.L.N.: Hell yeah
SD: But it was so heavy and so loud that I was into it. You know,
A.L.N.: That's our secret.
SD: And yeah, right. And I purchased a copy of Hell II, I remember that. I remember I purchased it for $40. And I feel like you…I don't know who I purchased it from, but you guys thought you were pulling one over on me. Because it was 40 [bucks]. You probably had a conversation backstage [like] We'll charge 40 bucks and someone will pay this, you know, or whatever. And I remember I bought it and I was so psyched because I was aware of Hell and all the sort of, I guess you could call it the Funeral Doom movement from Salem, or the Pacific Northwest. It was on my radar.
And then we went to your house and hung out and we were talking about music and you had some records in your room and on the bottom shelf of your record shelving unit or whatever, there was a copy of Sleep’s Dope Smoker. And I commented on it and you went, Whoa, my brother's working with a metalhead, and I said, Well, I’m a well adjusted metalhead. That was our first hang, and then you came up to the beach house, I think the next time I came up, to record drums on some of that album.
A.L.N.: Yeah on Holy Land…
SD: Yep, totally. Oh, great. That's it.
A.L.N.: Okay. That helps. I'm glad you have a good memory. All those details add up, including the location of the records in my bedroom. Yeah, you're remembering that all correctly. And yeah, when I went out with Andy Black to the beach house, where you're recording Hustle & Drone, which is my brother Ryan's post Portugal. The Man project that Andy ended up joining. And so we both played on that record and that was exciting, because I hadn't actually musically worked with Andy, since you know, Sorceress, which was years before that. So even though we didn't like, you know, sit in the room and jam out those songs together, it was a nerdy detail for me that was like, Oh, I get to be on a record with Andy again, that's fun.
SD: Was that the first time you made music with Ryan?
A.L.N.: In a recorded sense, yeah. When we were growing up, like, obviously, we played together sometimes, like, in the basement at our parents house. And then there were moments when he was in an older, like, kind of punk, pop punk kind of band. And their drummer couldn't make a couple shows. And I sat in, and I was like, at this time in our lives, you know, like, we weren't friends yet. I was like, the annoying little brother, you know? And so I like, sat in on drums and then all of his friends were like, really impressed and thought I was better than their drummer and liked playing with me a lot. So yeah, I have, you know, performed with my brother a couple of times, like local Salem shows growing up, but we'd never I'd never been on a record with him. And that's still the only record I've ever been on with him.
SD: Cool. Oh, that's great. Yeah, that’s how we met.
A.L.N.: That's how we met. And now, you know, we've worked together on Mizmor a handful of times. The first time was in 2015 – you mixed Crestfallen Usurper for me, which was on the Mizmor/Dross split. And then I was so stoked that you did Yodh, you mixed Yodh for me in 2016. And then I kind of fell into the groove of, kind of, the audio team that is you and Adam Gonzalez, mastering, who also worked on those two records. And then you did Cairn and 2019, and then we just finished doing Prosaic, which is unreleased and there are little details about out in the world yet. But we've been working together for a long time now, and our friends circle. I feel like our world has shrunk a lot too, in the sense that like, Ryan, super good friends with you, Andy is super good friends with you. You've started working with Emma, who's my sister in law, and you guys are really great friends. So like, I feel like there's sort of this loose musical family that we kind of have, which is really fun.
SD: I love that. Yeah, it's a really nice feeling. It makes me feel, you know, really, really lucky, but also makes me feel like the richest man in the world just because my friends want to record with me, and that's kind of how I got my start. I was always everyone's friend who happened to work at a studio, you know? So it's kind of a nice... I think it's really cool that you, Ryan, Emma, Andy, like, you guys all have these massive outputs. And you guys toured the world, and you played shows overseas and all over the states and all this stuff. And then, but it doesn't feel like this big pressure when either you and I are mixing together, and I'm tracking some of those people. There isn't this looming thing of, Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do? Or how are we going to figure this out? You know, and I think that really helps people either get the mixes done the way that they need, or get the album's tracked, but I feel like, you can also say, to me if you don't like something, or you know, and it's not like, How do I ask for an adjustment or tell him that I'm not quite satisfied yet, and you don't feel like you're stepping on my toes or anything like that, you know?
A.L.N.: Yeah, and that's interesting, because it can, it can also totally go the other way a lot of times working with friends, you know, we're like, totally, you don't have a strictly professional relationship. So it almost becomes more awkward to be like, Hey, actually, I need a revision, Sorry, dude... Like, if you were just a guy I was paying I would be like, Yeah, whatever, like, this is your job - here's what I need... But once you become friends with a person then sometimes it's an even more sensitive situation. So that's, I mean, I feel the same way as what you describe, but I'm glad to hear it coming back from you, because sometimes it can just be weird to be friends and business partners with people, you know, in any industry.
SD: It is. And I think, you know, there's definitely a little bit about this with me, and I think with you, too, like, you work so hard at a craft, and it becomes an extension of who you are. So as your friends, as you get older, your friends sort of know, you as the craft sort of comes first, and then you're a part of it, you know, so I think. And I don't know, I'm not putting words in your mouth or anyone else's mouth. But you might say, Well, I know I can ask him for these things because I know that he's a professional studio person first, and he's my friend, ao I feel like I'll get the quality and I'll get the adjustment. And no one's feelings get hurt. You know? So yeah, that's great…
A.L.N.: So tell us a little bit more about before we get into, like, what's happening in your world nowadays, tell us a little bit more about how you got your start. I know you, you apprenticed under Flood for a long time, and then kind of started cutting your teeth in studios around LA, even just sweeping floors at first and kind of slowly ascended the ladder until you're your own boss and big dog on your own campus. So tell us a little bit more about how you got into the music industry and engineering and producing in general?
SD: Yeah I started off... I come from a musical family. My father and grandfather are professional drummers, well my grandfather is no longer with us, but my dad is 74, and still gigs, and he gigs like, three, four times a month, and plays all over Massachusetts, where I'm from. And he did a bunch of touring in the 60s and he toured with The Animals. And it's, you know, I've been around it, my whole life. I was in bands. I also worked in a record store called Newbury Comics for a long time on the East Coast. And when I was in college, I studied music, and I decided that maybe music school wasn't for me. But I really really bloomed in music school because I could knock on anyone's door and talk about music or art or jam, you know, anything like that. And I had a friend who had moved to Los Angeles, got an internship, and then got hired after six months of working for free – he worked in the film industry. I had never heard of an internship. I didn't know what this was. But I thought, okay, if Adam can do this, I can do it... that sounds great. I can do it too. I decided to move across the country on a whim, I knew two people. My buddy found us an apartment. And when I landed…
A.L.N.: This is…moving from, like, the Boston area to LA…?
SD: Yeah, I was living in Boston, I'm from a town called Wakefield, which is on the North Shore - I think it's 11 miles outside the city. And, you know, the band I was in fell apart and I decided that I was going to move to California with some friends, rent a house, and put a studio in that house and make punk and hardcore records. That's the community that I'm from, [they] would go to hardcore shows and punk shows and definitely a lot of metal, metalcore shows. And I thought it'd be really cool to be in a band again, but also have a little bit more control over the studio because the recording experiences that I had were not positive at all, not because of the bandmates just, I think in Massachusetts, there's a lot of people who are passionate about music and art and recording, but they all have full time jobs and you can really only book studio time on the weekend. And so when you go in, everyone's pressed for time, everyone's a little burned out, and sometimes there is a lack of professionalism.
And there were a few sessions in particular that I vividly remember, even when I had no experience at the time, engineers telling me that's not how a drum set is supposed to sound. [Or] No, we can't put those microphones near those drums like that. In the reference material that my band and I, you know, we were listening to and bringing in, they just didn't understand. They weren't listening to the same music, and that to me was a problem. But some of my bandmates who had gone to recording school gave me the classic, Well the guy has a tape machine that was owned by Prince so it must be cool... I think that is actually verbatim one of the things that I was told. And I just decided that I wanted to learn about it, and why not move to Los Angeles and make a go, you know, with no experience and no idea how to get into music professionally. But I was 22. And, you know, why not? If LA didn't work out, I could always move home. You know, my parents were supportive. And they said, you can always come back. You know, even if you go for two years, and you just kind of discover you, you'll come back.
15 years later, here I am in LA still, married with a kid, definitely not moving back anytime soon. And yeah, I was living in Los Angeles [and] for four days, I was a driver for a production company. And my roommate who I was working with said, Hey, I found this ad on the UTA list, which is the United Talent Agency. And it said, ‘Multi platinum band with an alias producer seeks recording studio assistant.’ And I had no idea what it was for. I thought maybe it would be for some huge pop act – I actually thought it was for the Jonas Brothers. I've no idea why I thought that, I don't listen to their music, but that's what I thought. So I attached my resume, and some links to some projects that I had done, as far as the band I'd played in some film scores that I had done and, you know, quote, unquote, produced - didn't know what that meant. And expected nothing, got an interview the next day.
So day five, living in California, I was driving. I forget where it might have been Century City or somewhere. But I remember driving to this interview, looking up at this massive building, thinking, you know, what am I walking into? What is this going to be? And I walked in, and everybody there had these formal suits or buttoned up shirts and looked really nice. And I had a black button down. I was definitely grubby, and didn't have a copy of anything I had worked on, I just kind of went into this interview very green. And I met the day to day manager for 30 Seconds to Mars, this man, Jonathan Coulter, and [he] kind of told me, It's for this band, we've got Flood producing, and your job is going to be picking up lunches, cleaning the studio, picking up equipment, dropping off equipment, that sort of thing. I really did not know who Flood was. I had listened to the band before. I had been a fan of some of the songs and the first album, and I really liked bits of the second record, but had never met anyone you know. And as I was leaving the interview, he said, You know, thanks for coming by, I'm not sure this is going to work for you, because you don't have enough experience, which is the truth. I had never recorded anything. I'd never put a microphone in front of anything ever, you know. And I thought that was cool… I got to do the interview and I was going home. And as I went around the corner, we're leaving…he said, Here's an address. Don't be early. Don't be late. I kind of went… okay.
A.L.N.: After telling you that it wasn't going to be, he didn't think it was going to work with you…?
SD: Yeah, I'm pretty sure. I could be misremembering, but I'm very, very positive that it was just sort of a situation where you're kind of like, Hey, man, it's all good, you know, I think that way, just no one felt like anyone got the job, you know? They just kind of walked me out, ushered me away. And yeah, so the next day, I went to the address, which was a house that the band had set up a studio in. So I walked into the house, saw the drum set, saw some microphones, and I met with the then guitarist, Tomo and drummer Shannon. And we had a casual conversation asking me, you know, what my experience was, they had a copy of my resume and they were super nice. They just said, Look, you don't have any experience, you know…I said I know, I don't know why I'm here, okay? And they said, Well, our singer and producer wants to meet you as well. They want to talk to everyone who's applying for the job so come back this time.
So I went back and met Flood and talked to him for a while. I had no idea who he was. And talk to the singer Jared, and his whole thing was that I think they liked that I had no experience so I had no preconceived notions of what maybe needed to be done in the studio. And the truth is, I really really wanted to just be a fly on the wall and work for free, because I said to them I wanted to move to California to have my own band and record albums again, but I want to learn how pros do it. And a lot of these albums that I had grown up listening to the radio, I thought sounded amazing. And the performances were amazing. But I also went to all these hardcore shows and loved the energy and performance and emotion in that music, so I wanted to marry both things. And yeah, I remember, they walked me, they had a little control room. They walked me in and said, you know, can you show us the 1176? I had no idea what it was. I pointed to it and said that says 1176… but I don't, I don't know? You know and they were very transparent. They said look, you have no idea what you're doing. But, you know, being a drummer, I had a lot of experience tuning drums, I built a few drums on the side as well, very, very casually, nothing professionally. And so I think that was intriguing because I could tech for the drummer Shannon.
And I ended up getting the gig. So I did almost a year and a half with that band on that album. And we were writing, recording, programming, six, seven days a week - 12 hours a day. And it was this amazing baptism by fire, as they call it. And I, you know, Flood was really good about not giving me too much responsibility in the beginning, but always making sure things were done correctly. So eventually, once the band ran out of time and money, they said, Look, like, we can't keep hiring these big engineers, we gotta start rethinking how we're going to do this. And a bunch of engineers had come through prior, and I was just watching everybody taking notes. And I was actually so bad at making coffee, that Flood promoted me to go into the control room, because he - I'll never forget it. I followed the directions. I didn't drink coffee at the time, I followed the instructions, I made it exactly the way he wanted it, exactly the way the drummer wanted it, exactly the way the guitarist wanted it... I think they all took a sip and they just went, No, how do you mess this up so, so badly? And I remember they were filming the session as well, because they made a film about it. And we all had to wear lav mics. So Flood took me outside, and I thought I was getting fired. Because he wanted to take me away from everybody. And he said that, You know, I've been making albums for over 30 years, and you are by far the worst barista I've ever had, I have to promote you.
A.L.N.: That's an interesting covert tip right there, right? To be bad at making coffee so that you can start in the control room.
SD: And it was truly… I really tried as hard as I could, you know, and I think you have to learn how to reset the studio every day. So I was cleaning everything, setting the kitchen up. So it looked nice when people needed something, they could grab a snack, grab a coffee, you know, and overseas and when the Brits are making records and doing their apprenticeship, they're called Tea Boys. And you have to make tea the way that every person wants it. And if you get good at that, that means you pay attention to detail. So therefore you can start picking the lunches up and you don't mess anyone's orders up, then you can start assisting, you know, I think… and I went through a very similar process. And I think those little details, they show up in engineering work too, because you're paying attention to which equipment you're using, are the patches okay, are the microphones in the same place as they were yesterday, you know, that sort of thing.
And every night after the sessions, and every morning before the sessions because Flood didn't drive when he was in California, he would sit with me in the studio and kind of talk about some basic recording or show me some very basic things. And we just have a lot of philosophical conversations about production and engineering and how to help people get through the process. And so when it came time for the band to figure out how they were going to finish making their album, myself and the other assistant Jamie – Jamie had a lot of experience recording. He was a songwriter, producer, and musician on his own for years before he got hired by the band. We were a great team because, you know, I had watched all the engineers come through. And so I learned ProTools basics, and I made sure that I could track the band using the existing setup or getting back setup that the band wanted. They would say, You know, when Brian Virtue was here, he got this amazing drum sound, you have to get the same thing. And I had all the recall sheets, so I would look at Brian's settings, set everything back the way that he had it, put the mics and you know, pretty much the same place, and the band was happy. So after I would track, Jamie would edit, and comp and make sure everything was okay in the computer.
And yeah, after a year, and almost a year and a half. We finished the record, I ended up mixing one song with the drummer, it was more of like a segue piece. And then I kept in touch with every engineer, there were seven or eight engineers that came through that record. And I kept in touch with everybody and anyone that was kind enough to let me sit in, or go get lunches or coffees for them, I would just take them up on their offers. And so I started doing a bunch of apprenticeships, for a bunch of different producers and engineers just to see how people did things, you know, and some of those people had studios, some of them were renting studios. So I was just seeing different rooms, different equipment, all the time. I even went to London for a little over a month to shadow Flood and this guy, Alan, that he works with all the time. And watch how they make records together and how Alan mixes and just to, you know, when you're 22, every bulb is twice as bright. Every button is twice as big. And it's important to lean into that I think.
A.L.N.: Right? So basically be in the room and say yes to things.
A.L.N.: And also to be there in the first place. And just yeah, just be a ‘’yes man and see where it goes.
SD: I wasn't necessarily a ‘yes man.’ I was more of a gopher, I think I'd call myself.
A.L.N.: Right. But you said yes to whatever was kicked your way is what I mean by that?
SD: Yes. And I think what was really important is that I had a conversation with Flood. When he was leaving the album because he had finished his part of it [and] another producer was coming in to help finish. And I had a similar conversation with him when I was in London, we went out and had dinner. And he said, What do you want to do with this opportunity? You're working on a big record. You know, this could open a lot of doors for you, but you have a lot to learn because you didn't come up in a commercial studio. I didn't know about how to use big analog consoles at the time, you know, in real rooms and real mics. And he said, What do you want to do? And I just looked at him point blank and I said, When I'm your age, I want to sit on that side of the table and be able to talk to me now. You know, or somebody like me. And he said, Okay, if you want to do that, I'll help get you caught up to speed and trained. But you have to commit to this, you know, wholeheartedly and it's a long thankless, unforgiving road, and it takes about 10 years to really start to do some of your own work. I just went okay, I'm in. I’m whole ass in. And it really did take 10 years.
A.L.N.: That's awesome, man. I mean, I can relate in the sense that like, I've noticed that for for bands and my own project too, that like, you don't get the opportunities you really want unless you have enough staying power to be doing your thing for 10 years or so – that's just about as long as it takes for people on the periphery to be like, Oh, yeah, I know who that is. And you have to be incredibly patient and passionate, or else, there's so many places at which it is tempting to just quit.
SD: Yes, I definitely dealt with that. The thing that I struggled with the most is the impatient part of it. Because when I started to mix and do some engineering for people, I think when you first get into it, you really think you know how to listen. And I think you really, really believe that what you're doing sounds great. And so you're passionate, you're excited, you're motivated, and it's the perspective or hard truth of it is – you have a long way to go. And the road really is not winding, it's actually pretty straight. And I went through a lot of heartache and frustration when I'd get passed on a project or wouldn't get a gig because I wasn't experienced enough. And I really thought that I was. But the more and more I do this, and the more and more I experience different people's projects, different sessions, different mixes, you really learn that there's no one way to do this. And if you genuinely love it, it'll never feel like work. And eventually, you kind of pick your head up, and you go, Oh, I've, I've worked on some projects, I've done some shit, you know, and I think, then you just put your head back down, and you go back in the trench, and you go back to work, because I think, as you probably do, I definitely do. You can always improve, and you can think you can always be better. So you're sort of trying to figure out how to grow in your industry or your craft, and it could be technique. It could be different rooms, it could be different instruments, you know?
So if you're always trying to learn and always trying to grow, I think you'll, you'll be okay. That's something that I learned, especially from Flood and Alan…I was doing something… recording, I think it was acoustic guitar or something, or electric guitar. And Flood says, That sounds quite good, what mic are you using, and why? And I said, SM7… I've never heard it on a guitar amp, I want to try it. [And he goes] I've never thought of doing that either. I will try that. You know, it just fits into the mix. And you have these little moments where you get lucky. And you go, Oh, that experiment worked. Okay, why did it work? And then and then you figure it out? You know, it helps.
A.L.N.: That's interesting. I feel like so, so one of the things you said was that there's no right way to do this job. And I think that's perhaps, conceptually, something that's maybe unique to the arts in that, like, there's, there's definitely a technical side to what you do, especially on the engineering technician side of your resume. But then you're also, you know, a producer, and there to translate a vision or evoke a feeling. And it's like the perfect meeting, or the perfect crossroads for the, you know, the technical and the non-technical in that it is an art form. I'm sure in some sense, there is a right or wrong way to do certain aspects of the job. But when you view it as a whole, you are an artist as well. So do you want to kind of elaborate on that a little bit? How do you balance the technical aspect of your work and being knowledgeable about, you know, the frequency spectrum and how different microphones record in different patterns, and just specs on gear… And you know, you have to have a decent amount of knowledge to know what's gonna get you somewhere, know what tools to use, but not be so boxed in by that that you can't just experiment like you're like you're talking about.
SD: Yeah, yeah, I'd be happy to talk about that. Part of my background, too, after leaving that 30 Seconds to Mars album, I was told that, due to my inexperience coming from a commercial studio, I had a lot of holes in my knowledge and recording abilities, which is true, because when you work at a studio, you work on different types of music every day, or every other day. And your color palette just begins to expand because one day you're doing a punk band, the next day, it's a solo piano album. And a week later, you're doing an acoustic guitar and vocal record live, you know. So you have to be able to pivot, you have to be able to change and you have to be able to be ready for anything that comes at you.
So when I finished that apprenticeship, I guess you could say project, I tracked down all the engineers that were a part of that record, and three of them had studios. And I also applied to run two studios in Los Angeles as an in house engineer. And that's what I think I got a lot of experience, and I got a lot of knowledge quickly because I had watched these really talented heavy hitting mixer engineer people make fantastic recordings in a house, and I was blown away. I could hear the song on the radio and it sounded as good as all the other multimillion dollar studio projects out there – but 30 Seconds to Mars did it in their house, which is actually way ahead of the curve. You know, people start doing that now, but they were doing that in 2008 and probably before then.
So I went and worked for another producer, who had a studio and he was recording all different types of albums [and] working with all different types of artists. And he took me on as his assistant and engineer. And at the same time, I got a job at a place called King Size in Los Angeles, and another place called The Lair, which is no longer with us. And when I was at King Size, I was given the opportunity to use the studio, anytime somebody was not in there using it – and that was massive for me. I'm a drummer, I would set up 10 mics, five mics, you know, all different shapes and sizes, all in the same location, sort of trying to put the capsules close to each other. So they're all in the same spot in the room, maybe five feet from the drum kit. There was an older Neve Console at that studio, which I had never worked on anything Neve before but had read about it and wanted to see what it was all about. And I'd push record, run into the live room, play a bunch of drums, run back into the control room, level match all the mics, and just listen to…I had never heard ribbon mics before, I'd never heard really nice condenser tube mics. And I would sit there and go, Wow, that's what that sounds like in this room, okay, cool. What if I moved all those mics to this side of the room, what happens? And so I had, it was a little bit like, even if it's a word, like auto didactical but I was self taught in the sense where so much trial and error would happen.
But working at King Size and The Lair, it'd be a different engineer, a different producer and a different artist almost every day. And I'd have to assist these people or I'd be doing the engineering with the other engineer. And I just saw so many people work, you know, probably over 100 different engineers and producers in that first year or so because the studio is busy. And what they would do at King Size, this is before you could record at home professionally, they had these EP packages. And so you could book two days of studio time and a day of mastering at the end. And so what would happen is: I have to record the album on a Friday, mix it with the band or the solo artist on a Saturday and then we'd go master on Sunday. And then there was definitely a few conversations where the mastering engineer came in and he would just say, What happened? Why? What did you do? You know, and he would sit with me and show me if these are your references, this is how you… he helped me learn how to listen.
So I learned, you know, I think because of my background, being a musician, and going to some of these shows as a kid, I was in tune to the emotion of performance. So that was something that I think is part of my fabric, but the technical aspect - I didn't know how to listen to low end or high end, or what's the midrange doing, you know. And he would sit with me and say, This is how you hear this. This is how you listen to compression. And I did that at King Size, I did that at The Lair – those two studios sound entirely different, so that was an education because they had a lot of the same mics. They had the same console for a while, so that was eye opening.
And then working for this other producer who had a studio, we were working in not optimal conditions, but had to make albums sound like they were made in optimal conditions. So you learn how to go from A to B correctly, and he had all this other esoteric gear that I had to learn about. And so the way I balance the technical and the emotional side of production is I have a lot of phone calls or hangs or I try to get on the same page as the visionary, whether it's the band, artist, duo, I really try to understand what you are going for. And I asked for reference material, I asked for a brief of… I want to know what you like about the demos, what you don't like about your demos, and based on these conversations and the albums that I've worked on, I will kind of pre-plan an input list to think about, Okay, these microphones might be good for the vocalist for this project because of what they sound like when I sing in front of me, but also the records that they're talking about. So I put up a few options, try a few, and let the people hear what the test recording is, and then move forward. Sometimes we end up changing mics, we change instruments, we change the whole chain, but I really try to set it up in advance, and then make sure nothing is distorted or overly compressed, unless that's what people want. Because that way, if they, and I try to keep plugins off of stuff until we start to do overdubs, because I want everybody to know what we have from the beginning, so no one gets spooked, or no one feels like I pulled something over anybody.
And I think, also, I've worked in so many studios all over the world, that you build up sensory memory. And that is something that's really, really become part of my process, a friend kind of tipped me off to that years ago through like high fidelity listening sessions. And it's not necessarily about the specs of the gear, but how you perceive things. So when you record in a nice studio, for the first time, I tell this to everyone that's getting into engineering, you really learn how something sounds, because the room is right, the control room is right, and the gear is right…no problems, no flukes, no ghosts. So you really go, Oh, okay, there's too much mid range, or there's too much boxy low end, you know, so you can remember, when I worked or recorded drums at this nice studio, or mixed at this really nice studio, on the speakers that I know, I can confidently say with what I'm tracking is in a good spot or not in a good spot. And so I try to set up situations for people, where once the technical side is done, which is in the beginning – it's just a big sandbox and everyone can just let it out from there.
A.L.N.: Like a cat…
SD: A cat or little kids playing in the sand, you know, like,
A.L.N.: Let it out in the sandbox…
SD: Just work it out, you know, because I think if you do your job from a technical side of things, and everything sounds the way people want, and the phase is good, and there's no weirdness in the recording. Then when you start coaching them creatively, or they ask for your feedback, you're not thinking about the computer, you're not thinking about the recording chains, you're talking to the artist or the artists that you're working with side by side, saying, is this what you want, okay? If it is, let's keep going. If you're not happy with your vocal, let's figure it out why you're not happy to get you to a spot where you're so comfortable that you forget that you're recording. And so I really tried to set the technical stuff up before. But something that I had just produced, I'm mixing this week. I went rogue on purpose, because that's what the artist wanted. And we did something where I think a lot of engineers would be mortified, or producers would be mortified, but I tracked everybody live in the same room with minimum baffling, you know, minimum isolation, and there is a ton of bleed in all of the mics to the point where the lead vocal mic is basically an ambient drum mic.
A.L.N.: And you did vocals live too?
SD: I put a giant hut over the singer, and he could see the band, and I boxed him in because he said all the time prior that he had recorded, he did not like singing after. And when he plays live with his band, you know, they have been friends for 10 years. He said, When I see my brothers, I'm confident. And so I just said, Okay, that's that's how we're doing this, and I'll deal with the sonic issues later. And I'm kicking myself a little bit but at the same time, something that stuck with me and really changed my approach. Flood said to me when we were parting ways, he said, Listen, nobody ever whistled a reverb preset. And that blew my mind because he's right. The song, the performance is what matters most and if that artist can let it out, people are going to connect with it. Now that reverb preset might help the emotion translate, it might help the singer feel comfortable, but without the songs and without the performers – the gear doesn't do anything. It just sits. That was huge for me. Huge.
A.L.N.: Yeah, that's, that's really cool. That makes a lot of sense. So, what would you say like the artist's vision aside, and your kind of library of sonic experiences that you can call on aside… Can you accurately reflect on what you feel some of your own signature sonic fingerprints are? Like the Sonny DiPerry touch, if you will. Obviously, you're trying to please your client and make the record they want to make but within that, you're still going to go to certain places that you like, or that you feel are effective.
Do you have you kind of identified any go to and it can be as specific or broad as you like, from a piece of gear to just like, I like things to sound like they're in the red or just whatever. Are there some things that you just know you like that you've learned are more or less universally pleasant to the ear? Some sort of secret sauce that you're like, Oh, this'll get us there? Or, Here's my trusty old friend, and you're gonna love it.
SD: Oh, interesting. I actually don't have a lot of perspective on the albums that I work on. Sometimes when they come out, I don't listen to them after because I hear all the mistakes. The thing that I think makes me me would be, because I listened to and love so much music and different types of music – my CV is very varied. The breadth of work…the spectrum is huge. And I think outside of the equipment, the variety is what makes me me, because I feel right at home mixing a Mizmor record. And I feel right at home, mixing and recording Emma's solo piano and vocal project, Engine of Hell, that we did, because I listened to all that stuff. So I think I have two different hats, my productions have something different than my mixes. In my productions, I think the thing that maybe is signature to me is that there's a lot of rawness kept, as far as the performance, I definitely try to make things sound as full frequency and big as I can. But I really try to leave the flaws and the warts, if I can.
As a mixer, I think the things that make me, me, is… I leave the harmonic information loud in the mix. I like when the guitars are loud. I like you know, stuff like that, or whatever is carrying the chord progressions, I like being quite up in the mix. And I do like a drier vocal, I think that is something that I'm drawn to. But I do use effects. And I do use all the tools I can but I think those are the two big things or sometimes with the drier vocals, they are perceived as dry. But if you kind of dig in, there's a lot of processing happening in the stereo field. But I think between those two hats that I wear, the thing that makes me me, is finesse. I think even when I'm producing and when I'm mixing or sometimes I just get hired to engineer for people. I spend a lot of time finessing the details and getting things to kind of just get wrapped in like a nice bow. It doesn't mean it sounds super clean or super perfect all the time. But I want to make sure all the little details are accounted for and they get heard.
A.L.N.: Yeah. Yeah. From my experience working with you, I mean, we've never, we've never done the recording process together. You've mixed most of my albums at this point. And this is, you know, perhaps a crude or immature way to say this, but you definitely achieve the perception that everything is loud in the mix, which basically just means that everything has its own space to be heard. But the final product is like, wow, the guitars are screaming loud. But you know what, so are the drums and the vocals in my face? And you know what? Yep, oh, there's the bass too, like everything is somehow at the front of the mix. And I know that there's a bunch of Wizardry going on behind the scenes to make that happen. But it's nice to get a mix back like that, especially for like, the kind of music I make, metal, you know, because it is an aggressive sound. And, and I don't feel like I'm straining to pick out any of the performances I did. They're all just on the surface waiting to be experienced. And then you, I mean, we've talked about this before, but then there comes a moment, where you actually forget about the mix, and you just hear the music, and it becomes transparent. And I think that is truly amazing. And on a more specific note, I've noticed a couple of your signatures over the years…
SD: Oh, what are they, because I had no idea…
A.L.N.: And I know some of them, you know, play into what you know, I like and what and what I'm going for, but you know, on Prosaic, I said to you, I'm not going to tell you anything about what I want. Make this sound like the Mizmor record you want to listen to, in efforts to try to clean the slate of all the preferences you've picked up on that I have. And so I've learned, yes, you like a dry vocal, or perceived as dry there is a lot of stuff going on there still. And effects that you use are intentional and in certain spots, big vocal throws, but not a blanket thing…no delay the entire time. You know, it sounds silly when you get something that sounds as clear as the mixes you deliver.
You also like dry drums, punchy loud, like, almost like a hip hop drum. And, I think the most signature thing is what we call ‘Mr. Crisp,’ which is the crest which is just that there's a nice physical distortion, even though it's subtle, in a sense, things don't sound over driven and psycho. But there's an effervescence, a crispy distortion, kind of on top of everything. There's just this short range and it's not like a piercing bright thing but it is a brighter kind of sound. Where just everything sounds like it's coming out of the speakers and slapping you in the face. And it's all it's bracing sounding…
SD: interesting. Do you hear that in some of the other projects that I do? Like, did you hear that on Emma's record?
A.L.N.: Well, specifically on Emma's, on Engine of Hell, no, because I mean that okay, piano and vocal and, and nylon string guitar there that just kind of doesn't translate as much but on like Marked for Death, for example, and some of your other records like, it's maybe not, it's not as constant as it is on a Mizmor record where there's you know, tremolo, biting, distorted guitar happening the whole time. But I hear it on things like, there's just a little bit of that top range on the vocal, there's a lot of extra snap on the transient of the drums. And, I really liked that, but I've kind of grown accustomed to wanting to hear things that way.
SD: Oh, that's cool, I can tell you how I do that. There's two ways that I do it. So I worked for a producer for a long time who had this thing where, I mean, he had every piece of equipment under the sun. And he worked in Pro Tools but came up in the tape world. And he showed me, it's more from an engineering standpoint when you're doing the recording, but I've applied it to the mix. You see where the gain staging and the headroom is, for example, your recording on the mic pre and you get it to sound, you get the audio to sound like it's not in the green, it's not in the red, but it's sort of in the yellow, and right at the bottom of the red. And then he showed me how if you do that and you pull the output faders down on the console a little bit, you get these harmonics that sort of act like a crispy airband on things and if the low end starts to distort you pull the mic pre down a little bit.
So what I do in the mix, I use on the whole mix there's some gear, ones the master and servant by Overseer, that's fed into the single rack unit Obsidian compressor from Dramatic Audio. And then I have to mono manly pull Tex. So it's just transformers, tubes, transformers, tubes, you know, it's just like there is some harmonic stuff. And what I try to do is, after I get the balance right, or I feel the balance is close, I try to look for that transient or that upper range. And make sure that at a low volume, that stuff comes through. So even with drums, I'll mix the drums through, I use a Fatso Jr. a lot. And I changed the settings on every album. And then someone showed me this trick, which is, I think it's more of a mastering thing. So anyone that hears this, please apologize to all of your mastering engineers if you try this trick, because it does take a second to get into but, I use the fatso on drums.
And the reason why I love the fatso on the Drum Bus, is because not only does it compress a little bit and glue things together, there is a setting where there's a whole other part of the fatso, that's kind of like analog tape simulation. And I've done a few all analog records. So I learned how to calibrate the machine, how to bias the record input for the tape and all that stuff. And there's a setting on the fatso where you can kind of limit or compress just the high end of the sound. And what happens is, it keeps the high end and a nice, tight, compressed, like natural sounding thing, so there's not rogue frequencies. And I've sent pink noise through the fatso, originally, when I got it. And I started engaging, I think it's called, it's called the warmth function. And I will see where it rolls off the high end. So then I know, Okay, on this sound, I'm losing 7k, and up or 10k and up, but because I'm doing the high frequency limiting with the fatso, and then I add those frequencies back in, when you use bell curves, basically what happens is, everything in that nice, tight little box, and the high end just goes and comes up together. It's not like other things are going rogue on the high end.
And I actually, even on albums like Engine of Hell, I still use things that pleasantly distort, because I feel like in the digital realm, things are so clinical, and a lot of albums that we all love, it doesn't matter if you're a pop music fan, folk music fan… There are these harmonic things that are just a part of those records. And we don't have that, because we don't have tape. Sometimes you do, but for the most part, we're not working on tape. So I'm trying to use my sensory memory to get that back all the time.
A.L.N.: That's cool. That makes sense, I feel like distortion is something that, even in like a subconscious way, you actually want almost everything distorted. Even though it doesn't all need to sound distorted. You need those extra harmonics and everything. And people may not realize that, but it's incredibly pleasant to hear the right amount of distortion on essentially everything.
SD: It is. And I was very fortunate enough to work with a bunch of salty engineers who worked on tape back in the day. And when I was at The Lair, Larry would show me how to use tape. And he would say, we're going to put the machine at 15. And we're going to see how it sounds. And then we're going to put the machine at 30. And we're going to see how it sounds. But instead of trying to track the drums live, put them on tape, go into Pro Tools and listen to it, he had me track the drums digitally. And as clean as I could, so you have tons of transient information, tons of low end and names and now we're gonna go to tape. And you're gonna go out of Pro Tools to tape at 30 out of Pro Tools, the tape at 15. And I'm gonna leave the room and you can just experiment with how you want to hit that tape and how you want things to work. And to echo what you're talking about, I would even listen and the audio would appear louder to me. And that's because it was getting gently compressed and evened out. And so I started to see this like, ‘’hunter gatherer portion of our hearing get shrunk, you know what I mean? And so I think that's something that really helped me because I started sending my mixes to two inch tape, sometimes to half inch tape, you and I did some half inch tape... And I think, you know, learning about the craft from a, from a very old school standpoint has helped me because I was able to apply a lot of the techniques to tape plugins and Pro Tools, or analog plugin emulators. I've worked on that tape machine so I know how to bias it and I can bias it in the computer to feel similar to what I remember, you know.
A.L.N.: Totally. So let's, let's, let's start wrapping up here. I've got one really basic but I think kind of fun question for you. And before I say it, I will let you know that we're gonna expire in six minutes again, here.
SD: We can do it there. I have all the time in the world. You can edit this down. I don't care. Well, I'll do it rapid fire, though, if you want.
A.L.N.: You don't need to do it. Rapid fire. But what I also think, you know, like an hour is, is probably most people's attention span and we're, we're right around there. So, okay, so my final question to you is just what is your favorite part about producing, engineering, recording… For example, I've only done a few bands. But when I produce, my favorite part is working on the arrangement with the band, because it feels like we're solving a puzzle of what the song or the album wants to be. And you know, all other things being equal, the recording sounds good, we don't need to worry about that. And we just were listening back and we're going something's not right – what should this part be? And then they allow me in on the creative process there to inject a harmony or something like that. That's my favorite part because it very much feels like something wants to be something and it's not there and what do we need to do to get it there? And it feels like solving a puzzle. So what, well, maybe, maybe there's not one thing for you, maybe there's a couple, but what's one or some of your favorite parts of the job you do.
SD: Earlier when we were talking, I can't listen to any of the albums that were mine, because they don't sound the way that we wanted and I have all these bad memories or attachments to those albums, not in a traumatic way, but just wishing they were the albums that I heard in my head. And so I think my favorite part, still it could be in the mix, or it could be in the production is when we do solve the riddle, but it's not as specific as an arrangement thing, it can be a balance thing. But the artist or artists say to me, this is exactly how we heard it in our head. We really, really, really… this is what we wanted. And that to me is why I do this, day in and day out. That's unforgettable sessions that I've been on where we listen to playback at the end, to make sure everything is good before you do any last minute retracts. And I've had a few moments where there's always a little touch up here and there. But there have been a few or someone has genuinely said, this is exactly what it needs to be. And that to me makes me feel like I helped do my job, or help someone during that time.
A.L.N.: That's awesome. Because it reminds me of another thing I was gonna bring up, that I think is unique to your job is like, part of your job is artistry and part of your job is technical. But then there's this other aspect where you're just a social worker, where there's all this interpersonal stuff, and you're the band therapist and all that. I imagine that plays into what you're describing, where you're achieving a goal, helping someone achieve a goal and a vision. And at the end of the day, when they say I'm satisfied, that's got to feel good on a personal level, you've you've probably built a relationship with this person and it's satisfying in a way I would imagine.
SD: It's really important. And I think, because every artist or band or creative, they want to be heard, and they want to get what they need, and what they want. So you have to really again, learning how to listen, it's not just about the frequencies, the microphones capture more than that. And so you gotta listen and you gotta serve those people. I think it's, it's something that is a little bit lost.
A.L.N.: Because you'll just hear it on the mic if someone isn't feeling it.
SD: That's right.
A.L.N.: They're not comfortable or they're frustrated…
SD: And sometimes, you [say] you know what? We'll come back to the song tomorrow. It's okay. It's totally okay.
A.L.N.: That's awesome, man. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me here. I feel it's important to highlight you and people like you because you know, our artists get most of the limelight. And I mean, our egos are big enough already, we don't need that shit. And you guys are incredibly talented and just as important and doing your own craft with your own story. And I just wanted to give you the opportunity to talk about that more, because I'm so impressed by what you do and I love working with you. And I want people to know about you and know about engineers and production more because, you know, often people hear their favorite records, and they're just like, Wow, I love that artist. And it's like, Well, there's a lot that goes into that. Maybe they didn't even write that song, which is another conversation but you know…
SD: That's episode two. *laughs* No, thank you, man. I really appreciate it. It means a lot that you thought of me to do this. It's been awesome over the years, you know, becoming so close like we are. And it's just been, it's wild. You know, the fact that we get to do this day in and day out. I still feel like someone's going to come out with like, the big ol’ hanger and pull me away. So we caught you…the jigs up you know.
A.L.N.: We've also got imposter syndrome to some to some degree. But yeah, so just to remind everyone that this was my good friend Sonny DiPerri. Very talented. technician, recordist, mixing engineer, producer, that's based in Los Angeles at his studio Octopus Beak. Thanks so much, Sonny. It was nice to talk to you.
SD: Thanks, man. We'll see you soon.