Producer Tucker Martine on My Morning Jacket, The Decemberists, and UA Gear
From his roots in the Nashville music community, through his sonic experimentations in Boulder, Colorado, to finding his place in the 90s alt-rock mecca of Seattle, Tucker Martine's voyages through the country's burgeoning music communities have given him an eclectic musical vocabulary for his many producing, engineering, and composition projects. Today, the GRAMMY® nominee produces a variety of talent in the indie, folk, blues, and alternative rock scenes, including multiple projects with The Decemberists and My Morning Jacket. Marsha Vdovin takes a moment to speak with Tucker on his involvement with two new albums –– The Decemberists' The King Is Dead, and My Morning Jacket's Circuital –– and how Universal Audio analog hardware and UAD Powered Plug-Ins fit in the mix.
So you grew up in Nashville. That must have been quite an influence on you.
I wasn't very active in the recording world while I lived in Nashville, but I was playing drums in bands. We did have actually a recording studio in my high school — Hillsborough High School. The program was kind of falling apart, and the teacher was in charge of the Grand Ol' Opry and wasn't around very much, so I actually never took it. But my bands did record in there a few times.
My father is a songwriter, so I was in studios growing up, just going to his demo sessions with him. So kind of early on I thought of studios as kind of this magical, mysterious place that I didn't understand but had some kind of draw to.
It wasn't until late in high school that I started messing around with tracks, trying to record my own band's rehearsals and whatnot. Even after I left Nashville — which was the day after high-school graduation — I moved briefly to Boulder, Colorado, and then to Seattle, Washington.
Why were you so quick to get out of Nashville?
Well, at the time it just felt like the music community was feeling too narrow to me. My musical interests were just expanding, and it felt like it was hard to find satisfying outlets for my musical interests there. It was just hard to find like-minded people, and I was feeling this pressure to get hammered into some kind of unspoken mold that's there.
But that's even an exaggerated perspective, I think, when you're 17 and 18. I feel like today I could go back there and find my own place, and make it my own.
But the music scene has changed a lot there, too.
Yeah, it really has.
I think it's much broader.
I totally agree. And I don't know how much of that is just my perspective has changed and how much of it is that Nashville's changed. But it really does seem to have changed a lot.
Why Boulder, Colorado?
Well: A) it wasn't Nashville and B) my older brother was living there at the time. He was a bass player and I was a drummer, and we had played together off and on. We had the teenage dream of starting a band and taking over the world and stuff.
So I went out there, and we explored that for about a year and a half. And then I realized that Boulder was too small of a town, and also perhaps too narrow now in a different way. So I set about traveling the states, sleeping in the back of my pickup truck for a while — after reading too many Jack Kerouac books — and Seattle was a stop along the way.
It was supposed to be just that, just a stop along the way, but I fell in love with it. Just within the week that I was there, I saw some really great experimental music, which I was really engaged with at the time, and I saw Bill Frisell play, who had just moved there, and I was big fan of his.
And then of course the whole Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney thing was happening…
"Cutting tape keeps you honest...Whereas, I think sometimes in Pro Tools, you might do things just because you can."
Seattle was a really exciting for music in the '90s.
Yeah, exactly. I saw right away that it was so much more than what was on the national radar. So that appealed to me, it just seemed like a great place for a young person to come into their own. And it really was. It was the perfect place for me to be for 15 years.
I read an interview where you talked about experiences at Naropa University in Boulder, that I thought was really interesting.
I only took a few classes at Naropa. I wasn't a full-time student, but one of the classes, I wish I could remember the exact name, but it was something to the effect of using the studio as an instrument. And at this time I was starting to get more and more into Brian Eno and John Cage, and guys like that.
Not just the music, but also the philosophy of exploring the studio as more than just a way to document something. The teachers at Naropa tend to be a little bit esoteric, so we had homework assignments like they would hand us a plastic baggie of a few seemingly random items like rubber band and a paper clip and a rock and maybe a piece of food or something, and we were supposed to come back in a few days with a composition using just those items, a microphone and a multitrack tape recorder. They had a quarter-inch 8-track machine, and you had to sign up for time there. So I'd usually end up in there at about 2 in morning.
So that was such a great time, exploring, manipulating sounds with tape speeds and tape directions, and tape loops, and all that stuff. Which, I was gradually learning, was a component of a lot of the music that I liked. So I was just kind of getting to know a lot of the processes of using the studio as an instrument that had been around since as long as tape recorders existed.
Do you think those processes, experimentation, and expanded attitudes about creativity made you a better producer, or a better engineer?
I don't know if it's made me better or worse, but it's certainly informed my approach. I certainly encourage people to experiment, and I enjoy a chance to see what a certain piece of gear might do if you abuse it or use it wrong — or use it before you know how to use it.
Those are exciting things to me, it's a great way to surprise yourself, and to land on something exciting that you might otherwise not find. And the longer I do this, the more important it is for me to set up ways that I might surprise myself and stumble upon something that feels fresh and exciting to me. Some of those things that I've learned over the years might be new and exciting to the artist I'm working with, and might sort of jolt them out of stagnation.
I'm always eager for an artist to make some absurd request that seems impossible, or doesn't appear to make sense. I've learned to rather than just shake my head and talk them out of it, sometimes to step back and say, "Well, let's try to find a way to do what you're talking about."
And you usually end up somewhere that's probably not exactly what they were thinking or what you were thinking, but it might get you to a place that everyone is excited about.
My previous interview was with producer Jacknife Lee, and we talked in detail about the R.E.M. album, and you were involved in that too, weren't you?
I was, yeah. Not in a huge way, but early on, I recorded those guys' demos in Portland. The idea was that they wanted demos that could be used on the record if the magic moment struck. They were very kind to give me a credit on the album. I'm not sure how much of the sessions we did ended up getting used, because it certainly sounded radically different by the time the album came out. But it was a thrill to be a part of it, because they were one of the bands that early on had a lot to do with me setting on the path of wanting to spend my life making music.
My impression is that Peter [Buck] likes to work really quickly, but maybe not everyone else in the band likes working so fast. So with the demos, they at least had a good picture of those first times the songs were really played all the way through.
It was very loose. It was kind of like, "Oh, it sounds great. Yeah, maybe, might as well run one where you do the bridge twice as long." It was that kind of thing. Clearly the pressure was off, and it wasn't the big tracking session, and I think that was the idea –– to capture some stuff where the pressure was off.
That was kind of interesting, because I think that the latest My Morning Jacket record started the same way. There was no talk of it being a record. No one even necessarily said it was going to be demos. It was put to me like, "Hey, you want to come down for 10 days and help us put some gear in a church, and maybe record some ideas?" I'm such a fan of the band, and I love those guys personally as well, so I didn't ask any questions, I just said that I'd love to.
It makes sense to me that bands want to change it up a bit and to bring out something else in themselves –– especially after they've made a lot of recordings, and they've done the process of putting a lot of pressure on themselves, and have had a lot of pressure from the label, and maybe have worked with a producer who's more of a tyrant. I think that sometimes bands like to set up a situation where they can convince themselves that they're just playing around, and they're not making a record. But, if things go really well, then they have it on tape. That kind of thing. It seems to be a theme emerging in my life [laughs].
You produced The Decemberists' The King Is Dead. How many albums have you done with them?
That's the third proper album, and there have been a series of singles and various one-offs, but three albums. I was co-producing it with Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie. Then the last two have been just me.
So I assume you have a very collaborative, close relationship, and enjoy working together?
With The Decemberists? Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It's always kind of a luxury if you get to work with somebody on a second or third album, because at that point you've established such a common vocabulary, and you know when you're talking about the record before it starts, you're more confident that you're talking about the same thing, and you just can kind of hit the ground running. Often in the beginning you spend a while getting to know each other and getting a feel for each other. Which is great and exciting, but it's also nice when you start to be able to read each other's minds.
"There's an attitude that the 1176 brings out in vocals that I just love...I typically like the way it sounds when it's grabbing pretty hard, if somebody's singing really loud, too."
Where did you record The King Is Dead?
We recorded it in a barn, about 30 minutes outside of Portland, on the property of some friends of ours. It's just one big, open room. Not even that big, but big enough for the band and myself. It felt like maybe it was a reaction to the previous record, where the previous record was more or less a concept album. It was a very laborious, cerebral process, where most things were fairly figured out before we got the studio. We knew exactly what songs were going to be on the album, and what the sequence was.
On this album, it was just a handful of kind of short pop songs. The idea was to be really loose about it, not be overly prepared and try to catch a feeling in the space with everyone playing together.
In some cases we stuck to that idea of everyone playing together in a barn, and keeping everybody's takes. And in some cases it became obvious that the song could benefit from maybe tracking just the rhythm section and Colin, and then evolving the more ornamental parts after the fact.
Since it was really recorded in one room, whatever one was playing during the take bled into everything else. It was beautiful, but you had to be ready to commit.
What did you bring, gear wise, to the barn?
I brought pretty much all my racks of gear, which is just a wide range of stuff from funky, junky stuff to really nice, high-end stuff.
What did you record to?
We borrowed Chris Walla's RADAR hard-disk recording system.
Those were so popular for a while, but I haven't been hearing much about them lately.
I haven't either, and I had never used one before. But Chris was always singing its praises and telling me I should check it out because he knows how I like working on tape, and I like the mindset that that seems to get.
That you can't just re-do all the takes…
Yeah. Exactly. It really puts the focus on the performance, the moment, and if something is wrong, you don't decide that you'll fix it later. You figure it out right then and you go do it again.
So we were just far enough out of town that we didn't want to be at the mercy of needing a tech to come out and look at the tape machine once a week while it broke down in the middle of a take or something. So we went with the RADAR, and I thought it sounded fantastic. It was easy to learn; it's very basic, but you can do some editing. Editing is almost as laborious as it is cutting 2" tape — so it keeps you honest. You have to really need to do that edit, if you're going to do it.
Whereas, I think sometimes in Pro Tools, you might do things just because you can.
Did you use a console?
We got a Mackie 24-channel board off of Craigslist, just to monitor back in the same room that we were recording in. But I did bring my monitors. I used ProAc Studio 100s. So at least there was one familiar element in the chain.
Nice monitors. Was there any Universal Audio hardware in your racks?
Certainly, my three 1176LN Classic Limiting Amplifiers were there, and being used.
Are they reissues, or vintage?
I have two vintage and one reissue, and I'm equally happy with all of them.
Can you tell a difference in the sound?
I have an old silver-faced 1176 that was the first nice compressor I ever bought. So, sometimes when I shoot them out, I convince myself that it's my favorite, but I think it might be somewhat sentimental. But I would plug any of them in when I want an 1176 and not think twice about it.
Colin, the singer in The Decemberists, has such a distinctive voice. How did you go about recording him? What was your signal chain like?
I pretty much would always go from the mic, which varied, but more often than not it was the Wunder Audio CM7 into a Telefunken V72 preamp, then into an 1176. I would try to be gentle with the 1176 on the way in, but I often would be aggressive when applying it again during the mixdown. Colin can get really loud, so I love knowing that the 1176 was there to reign him in if he started getting really loud.
I typically like the way it sounds when it's grabbing pretty hard, if somebody's singing really loud, too. There's an attitude that the 1176 brings out in vocals that I just love.
How many different musicians did they use?
It was the five band members for the most part, and a couple times we had guests come in.
Don't they sometimes use more delicate acoustic elements?
The previous record probably had more varied instrumentation, a harpsichord and such. For this record, we went a little bit more with the kind of classic rock-and-roll lineup –– acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass, drums with a mono overhead, piano, a little bit of accordion, and a little bit of Hammond B3. Chris Funk also plays pedal steel, and once in a while someone would pull out a 12-string electric guitar — or a bouzouki.
Do you use the 1176 on guitars?
I do. You know, honestly, I'll use it on pretty much anything. There's really nothing that I wouldn't use it on. Occasionally on brash drum sources it can accentuate the cymbals a little more than I want, but that's also because I like to abuse the compressor. I love the all buttons in.
You know, the 1176 was the first compressor that I ever fell in love with. Early on, I didn't have any idea what the purpose of compressors was or why I would need one. Then I had an experience where it all finally made sense and I decided I had to have one. It was pushing all the buttons in while using it on a single Coles 4038 mic above a drum kit. I thought that drum sound was so much better and more interesting than any drum sound I'd ever gotten with seven different mics on the kit and tons of EQ and all the trickery I was reading about in the magazines. So, yeah, I have a love affair with them.
I love [the 1176] on bass. It's got a lot of sex appeal about it. I love it on electric guitars. I've even put two across the mix before, something I had read that Richard Dodd liked to do, and I love the sound of a few of the records he's done. So that encouraged me to try that.
I'm drawn to equipment that has a personality, and most of the Universal Audio gear that I've used has a lot of personality. To me there's a good reason why the 1176 is probably the most ubiquitous compressor in recording studios.
I remember when Lucinda Williams released Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That was the first time I knew for sure when I was listening to a record what compressor I was hearing.
"I'm drawn to equipment that has a personality, and most of the Universal Audio gear that I've used has a lot of personality."
Why was that?
It's that attitude that the 1176 brings to the vocals. It's just a color. I don't really know a better way to describe it, but it's a color, and it's a feeling. I just know it when I hear it, and it's the color that speaks to me the most.
Where did you mix The King is Dead?
It was mixed in my basement. I have an API Legacy console, which I'd just gotten as I was recording the record out in the barn. It was the first record I'd mixed since getting the console, although I had used the console many times at its former home at Avast Recording in Seattle. So I mixed the record at home, and I did not use the console automation, much to the chagrin of my tech, he spent a lot of effort getting it up and running. [Laughs.]
I started using the automation, and I just felt like it was slowing me down. By that point, I had transferred the files into Pro Tools, so I was mixing off Pro Tools and it's just so easy to do your mutes in there, and I could do some rides in there if needed, and I always like having a few rides to do manually. Certain things, it feels right for it to be an interaction, more of a tactile interaction.
I have to say, my process is slowly evolving as a result of hearing more plug-ins that I like. And the majority of those seem to be made by Universal Audio. That's been a cool development. I've always seen myself as a hardware guy, because that's how I learned, and that's how I came up. That's how I figured out how to get to the sounds I was after.
I've been pretty suspicious of a lot of the plug-ins, until recently. More and more are getting my attention. The ability to automate them, and the recall ability is hard to argue with. So I'm thrilled that UAD Plug-Ins just seem to be nailing it.
What are some of your favorite UA plug-ins?
Well, the EMT® 140 Classic Plate Reverberator Plug-In. It just completely knocked me out, because I was positive that no one was ever going to be able to make a good-sounding reverb plug-in. But it's just gorgeous sounding. I've used it while there's a real plate sitting there. I've used it before and not missed anything.
I've also just started experiment with the EMT 250 Electronic Reverb, and that sounds gorgeous. It's just a little bit brighter, a little more sparkle. So when that's needed, I'll go to that in a second.
I try to only use a plug-in if I feel like there's not a sonic compromise at all. I don't want it to be for convenience.
When did you do the My Morning Jacket album?
We tracked Circuital last year in July and November, and then finished it, with some overdubbing and mixing, in January. It just came out May 31st.
It's getting a ton of play right now. It sounds really good.
Thank you. I was thrilled to be part of it.
Where was that tracked?
That was recorded in a church with a gymnasium built into it in Louisville, Kentucky.
Is that where they're from, Louisville?
That's where they're from, yeah.
Do you like going into nontraditional spaces to record?
Yeah, I do. I hadn't done a ton of it until these last couple of years, but I really do like it. I feel like it takes the emphasis off of the equipment, and it just puts the emphasis back on ideas and performance, and interacting with the space. I do feel, in some ways, there are some sacrifices that you have to make as an engineer in a space like that. You have to let go of being able to control the sound as well as you could in a modern studio where there's a massive wall between you and band.
Do you like tracking in the same room as the band?
Well…not necessarily. Because you have no idea, really, what it sounds like until playback. But I do like it for the energy and the communication of it, but it's a challenge. Often, I'm really hearing what it sounds like for the first time while the band is listening back to a take that we might want to keep. So it forces you to work really quickly to get sounds you like, because the performance is more important than getting an absolutely perfect sound. But I sure love it when the two things can meet. [Laughs.]
What did you record Circuital to?
It was recorded to a 2" 24-track Studer A827 tape machine at 15 IPS. That was Jim's machine. Jim James from the band.
I'm assuming there's lots of 1176 on that tracking.
Yeah. Jim owns several, and so does Kevin Ratterman, who was assisting on the record. That was certainly a piece of gear that we all shared common love for. So the vocals were always tracked through it.
And at mixdown, I remember we used the Teletronix® LA-2A Classic Leveling Amplifier quite a lot to add a little extra distortion to sounds. We would just drive the input, sometimes on vocals, sometimes on snare drum, sometimes on bass, sometimes on horns. It really became our go-to crunchifier.
Where was that album mixed?
It was mixed in Nashville at Blackbird Studios.
Who has every piece of UA hardware you could ever want.
Oh, my god, I know! We also used the UA 2192 converters over there.
Do you have any other plugs that you use? Do you have any special tricks or techniques?
Yeah, turn it on… [Laughs, all around]
But seriously, I've talked to people about the EMT 140 plate plug-in, and they start telling me all their favorite settings, and I kind of laugh and just say, "Well, I usually just bring up the default setting and change the wet-dry blend." And maybe change the length a little bit.
I've also been getting into the Roland® Dimension D Plug-In lately. It's so cool. I have the hardware box, but this is a case where the plug-in totally gets me there, and it's automatable. I can put it on multiple channels if I want.
"I try to only use a plug-in if I feel like there's not a sonic compromise at all. I don't want it to be for convenience."
All the plug-ins are modeled on specific units, and the Dimension-D was modeled on the Talking Heads' unit. Jerry Harrison always brings up the fact that Eno taught them how to use the studio as an instrument. That unit was touched by Eno, so that's probably why you're so connected to that plug-in. [Laughs]
Actually, that makes total sense!
He was a major factor in me realizing that this was what I wanted to do. I loved manipulating sounds, and I loved playing music, and my father was a songwriter. So I had an interest in the craft of songwriting.
I was trying to figure out where it all met, and how to reconcile all those interests. And Brian Eno, between his own ambient recordings and the song recordings and his production, sort of made me realize that that was as close to what I wanted to do as I could find to point at.
When everyone else was going to school and could tell you exactly what they were going to be, and what it was called and what you do, and whatnot, I was trying to make sense of all these different interests, and eventually realized that's what a producer does.
What do you think makes you such a good producer?
Well, I would have to say my endless enthusiasm for sound, and for music, and for people, and for collaboration and for ideas, and just the fact that I'll never stop until everyone in the room is pumping their fists in the air.
I'm always just looking for the best idea in the room, and it may or may not be coming from me. But for me, so much of it is the appeal of being on a strong team, and most of my best friends for life are people I've met through collaboration one way or another.
So yeah, I guess it's just wanting to be part of something great, and stopping at nothing until that happens. Or until it's obvious that it can't happen. [Laughs.] Whatever the case may be. But more and more I'm feeling like I'm getting invited to situations where we all just see eye to eye.
What more can you ask for?
Oh, yeah. I know.
Are there any other plug-ins in your arsenal you find useful?
Definitely. There's the Little Labs® IBP Phase Alignment Tool Plug-In. It's a godsend. I can't believe that no one had done it sooner.
What are you working on now? Or what do you have coming up?
Right now I'm finishing up a record with my wife, Laura Veirs. It's our seventh record. So that's been really nice to get to do something so close to home, because I've been away a lot for the last year or so — and we have a 14-month-old. So I go away for a while, but then it's important to be around for a bit. So this has really been a nice excuse. And I'm really excited to be working with Beth Orton in the fall.
I'm also building a studio. Finally, I'm going to have my own space outside of the house, and it'll be done in just a few weeks now, and that will be amongst the first things I do there.
Also coming up, I'm excited to be working with a Canadian songwriter named Basia Bulat. She's a really great, original-sounding artist from Toronto that plays lots of autoharp, charango, and marxophone, as well as pianos, guitars and, well, whatever you put in front of her, really. And she's got a gorgeous, powerful voice, so I'm looking forward to doing that this fall as well.
Flora Studios photography by Vivian Johnson.
My Morning Jacket photography by Roderick Trestrail II.