Producer Peter Katis on The National, Jonsi, and Universal Audio Analog Hardware
A house in Bridgeport, Connecticut, filled with vintage audio gear, has become an unlikely hotbed of indie music production. Along with it, owner Peter Katis has become one of the hottest audio alchemists on the planet, co-producing and mixing celebrated records by The National, Interpol, Frightened Rabbit, Mates of State, and Tokyo Police Club. Katis has spent much of the past year co-producing The National's acclaimed High Violet, and crafting the debut solo album, Go, for Jónsi Birgisson of Sigur Rós fame. The bands have a long-standing relationship with Katis, and often move in for several months while they work on their albums. Of course, Katis' Tarquin Studios boasts an impressive arsenal of Universal Audio hardware, both vintage and reissued. Universal Audio sat down with Peter to discuss the studio, his latest projects, and his ultimate collection of classic video games.
You grew up in New York City?
I was born in 1966, so I grew up in New York during the ‘70s. There was a lot of exciting music in that decade. I was definitely into music from a very, very young age. I started playing drums when I was nine or ten years old. I sort of got out of music, through junior high and high school. but when I hit college, I became obsessed with it again. I decided I wanted to be a guitar player, and that’s basically what I’ve been since.
In my own band, I played guitar and sang. On the records, I also played most of the keyboards and drums. My brother, Tarquin, plays bass. That’s also the name of the studio, Tarquin Studios.
That’s an unusual name, Tarquin.
It is unusual. That’s why we call the record label Tarquin Records. We couldn’t exactly call it Peter Records, or Peter Studios. [laughs] We wanted to call it something specific to us, not something generic.
You can go to tarquinrecords.com and check out The Philistines Jr. We just put out a new record last month [If a Band Plays in the Woods LP] for the first time in almost ten years. The music is pretty out there, certainly on the production side. It was nice to get back into making our music again. The reason we stopped putting out records was because I became so busy helping other people make their records.
So you listened to a lot of music growing up?
I did. I remember, even as a kid, being frustrated about not being able to understand why I liked things about certain music, and didn’t like things about certain music. I remember getting a lot of satisfaction from good-sounding records even before I understood why. I didn’t understand production, but I had a sense of it. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it certainly was production and how it was recorded.
So when I got into playing in bands in college, I definitely became much more aware of it. I initially got into engineering just so I could record my own band and music in a way that I thought worked.
That was the ‘80s, when people had very different ideas of what sounded cool and what didn’t. Quality was associated with slickness then. I don’t think it is any more, thank goodness. So again, it was hard to put my finger on why do I not like the way people are recording my music, even though it’s perfectly fine.
I grew up in the era of crappy little 4-tracks. But they had a funkiness that people still get into. I’d say those are my earliest memories of having some sense of what production was. This may be too obscure a reference, but I remember a song called “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House,” by a Boston band called Big Dipper, and just saying, “Wow! Listen to those drums.” I just found it extremely exciting.
I think to this day, people associate ‘the 80’s sound’ largely with overly powerful drums, sometimes slightly inappropriately powerful drums.
How did you start engineering and producing?
When I got out of college (I went to the University of Vermont), I took continuing education classes at SUNY Purchase [State University of New York] in studio production to learn more about it. The first day, they said, “As part of your project, you need to record some music in the studio.” Of course I asked, “Can I record my band?” They said, “Sure.” So we recorded our first album in “Introduction to Studio Production” at SUNY Purchase in the fall of 1989.
To me, it was just the greatest thing in the world. I would literally lock myself in that room on the weekends, when I could get time, and just force myself to figure out how to make things work.
It was a difficult process, as you might guess. Every weekend I’d come back and had forgotten a lot of what I’d figured out the week before, but eventually I could put it together.
And that eventually expanded to recording other people?
Well, other friends in bands locally would hear our recordings and say, “Oh, those are pretty good. Will you help us with our recordings?” I’d say sure, and the next thing you knew, someone wanted to actually pay me to help them. I guess that was where it started.
Then, the teacher there asked me to start being the teaching assistant, to teach the lab and studio portions. Within a few months, I got a job as an intern at a studio in New York, where I became an assistant and then an engineer.
So for two or three years, I worked in New York several days a week and built a studio in my parent’s basement where I’d record indie rock bands on the weekends.
I guess around ‘93 or ’94, I figured out that I had more than enough work to just work on my own in my little home studio recording other people’s bands. So I quit my job in New York.
Then in 1998, I managed to find a way to divide up a big old Victorian house here in Bridgeport. It’s sort of the ‘hood’ of Connecticut, so they were practically giving these giant Victorian houses away to set up a residential studio.
And Bridgeport isn’t that far from New York City…
In zero traffic, an hour, an hour and twenty minutes, usually. It’s a pretty convenient distance. It’s not too hard to go in for shows. I usually encourage people to go and stay in the city on the weekends, so they don’t go stir crazy. It’s just a Metro North train ride away.
So bands come and actually stay at the house when they’re recording?
Yeah. It’s a 7,000 square foot Victorian house. That’s definitely a big part of how I work. I have this big old place. The studio’s quite big. The control room is like 22 feet by 35 feet by 15 feet. It’s big for a control room, with a lot of couches. It doesn’t have that antiseptic feel of a lot of studios, which I think people really enjoy. We get a lot of natural light.
Then there’s the private part of the house. The band part has a very large TV room with a giant, flat-screen TV with surround sound, and a huge kitchen. There are four different band bedrooms, and two bathrooms. So that can accommodate quite a lot of people.
Nowadays, there’s less and less money in recording budgets, so people really like having it be just one package — the producer, engineer, the assistant, the lodging. There are no hidden costs when people work here, which is nice. There’s no extra fee for using the tape machine, or the synths, or any of that.
How would you describe yourself as a producer and mixer?
I think of myself as a producer, an engineer, and a mixer. I do all those things on a regular basis. That can be a challenge — it’s hard to think as a mixer, a producer, and a musician at the same time.
I try to look at everything, I think that’s important. You can’t mix a record without regard for the sonic logistics or for the music and style. I definitely find I need to turn my brain off in certain ways at certain points, just to work on the sound, and then reflect again on it musically later.
I’ll often find myself, on the first day of a mix, with the band relaying all of their opinions and comments. Sometimes I’ll resist them because they’re contrary to some of the cool things I’ve done sonically. But then I’ll have to get my head around it. I don’t want to lose track of it musically just to accommodate the sound.
Tracking records from beginning to end can be a little bit brutal, if that’s all you did. Recording full-length records is such a long, grueling process, that sometimes just mixing fresh tracks that you haven’t recorded can be really fun, a good change of pace.
Let’s talk gear. What kind of board do you use?
I have a Neotek Élite. It’s a 56-input board, a big old guy. But the way I work nowadays, it really is more for monitoring. I have loads and loads of outboard preamps and EQs and compressors. My outboard preamps are what I use for tracking.
When I track drums, I have a rack of APIs, a bunch of Neves, Telefunken V76s and 276s, Neumann preamps, Chandler preamps, Thermionic Culture preamps, and of course my Universal Audio gear. I also have all sorts of esoteric stuff.
Are you tracking in Pro Tools?
I track to Pro Tools, but I also still track a fair amount of basic tracks to tape. I have a Studer A827 2” machine, so a lot of stuff will see tape. But more and more now bands don’t care, they just want to go fast and actually do prefer the fast, tight sound of going straight into Pro Tools. But I’d say half the time bands like to hit tape, for drums and bass, at least.
What Universal Audio gear do you use?
In terms of the Universal Audio, I have one of your Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifiers, and a 2108 Microphone Pre-Amplifier, which I guess you’ve discontinued, but it’s definitely a cool piece.
I also have one of your 2-610 Dual Channel Tube Preamplifiers, which sees a lot of action. My normal go-to set up for tracking bass is by going straight into the 2-610 in the live room, and then, with a line-level signal into the control room, going into the LA-2A, and then to tape, or Pro Tools. It’s an all-Universal Audio signal path on the bass. I actually keep the 2-610 preamp out in the live room, so the bass player can just plug straight into it.
Can you elaborate on why you do that? Why you use that signal path?
There’s something very satisfying about plugging a bass directly into a preamp, and that’s why I keep it in the live room, the 610.
I keep the 610 in the live room because long cable runs from an instrument to the preamp, definitely does degrade the signal. So having that long run to the control room, I think is a bad idea. If you plug right into a preamp, it’s going to be a more robust sound a lot of the time.
The 610 does have this great — for lack of better words — old-school tube preamp sound. It’s not tube-y in a bullshit way. It’s a great-sounding preamp. I’ve found it’s good for a lot of instruments, but especially great for electric guitar.
I’ve heard people saying “there’s no headroom on the 610” or “you can’t drive it.” It’s just that most gear that’s still made today is designed to operate at old, analog levels. And nowadays, you can hit converters so hard, and ‘the kids’ [laughs] try to print things so hot — they run preamps hotter than they like being run. So I feel if you operate the 610 properly, it sounds great, and it never clips.
And the LA-2A is the definition of the old-school choice for recording bass, for a reason. It’s very hard to go wrong with. It just has ‘that sound’.
In terms of a really, sonically good sounding record, do you know the band the Swell Season?
Yes. You worked on that didn’t you? Did you work on the original album, or the second one?
On the second one. I did all the tracking and mixing here over a bunch of scattered sessions. That’s sort of a more polished record than I often make. It’s more of a singer-songwriter thing than an indie-rock thing.
But if you listen to the first track, it sounds pretty good in that it’s got a gigantic bass tone. That bass tone never came out of the box. That’s a Fender Precision bass, into the 610, into the LA-2A, that’s pretty much it. It’s a HUGE bass sound. I remember going to Greg Calbi at mastering and his asking, “God damn, how did you get that bass sound?” And I said, “I plugged it in!” [Laughs.]
I’d like to hear your take on the LA-2A, and the 1176LN Limiting Amplifier. How do they differ in sound and use?
The LA-2A, I use mostly on bass. It’s used to track almost every bass sound ever recorded here, in the last six or seven years. It’s just a tried and true compressor for bass. It’s got plenty of makeup gain, if you want to use it. Sometimes I’ll leave some headroom on the preamp side, just so I can use the makeup gain, because it’s got a lot of character. That’s where the tube is.
It’s the kind of thing where if you accidentally see that meter moving 8 or 10 dB at a certain spot, it’s fine. You don’t want it there the whole time, but it’s very forgiving. I think a lot of people consider it the ultimate bass compressor.
It also works great on vocals, certainly. It’s an undeniably great vocal compressor.
And an 1176 is again, a classic. I find it very difficult not to push all the buttons in. That’s certainly the most fun, especially if you have it on a lead vocal.
Can you describe what that does to the vocal?
It just pushes it in your face in a way that very few other devices can even attempt to. I got my first 1176 in the early ‘90s, and when someone showed me that trick of all buttons in, I got very excited.
Now, with a lot of mixing in the box, there are a lot of things that plug-ins are great for, but I find if I’m mixing a record in the box — though I usually use an analog summing mixer — I do need to run the lead vocal out through analog gear and print it back in, to get the same type of in-your-face sound.
The point being, an 1176 gives you that in a way that I think no other compressor does.
Why would you use one over the other?
If the vocal’s lacking a little aggression and needs to be brightened a little, the 1176 with all the buttons in is a dream. If the vocal’s already a little bright, or a little aggressive, that can be too much. That’s where the LA-2A would do a better job.
But when you need to beef up a vocal, or just add some edge to a vocal, there’s nothing quite like an 1176. And if I’m using a room mic on a drum kit, or on an electric-guitar overdub, and I just want that room sound to be more aggressive, the 1176 does something pretty special. Super-quick release.
I guess the point of all these buttons is it creates a little hole in the attack time that lets stuff through — which I think is what’s important — but it still retains a super-quick release.
I have the Interpol and The National albums that you worked on. I listen to The National a lot, both Boxer and High Violet. What really strikes me about all those records is there’s so much low end going on. The singer for The National, Matt Berninger, is so amazing, his baritone voice is so full. You do such a great job of creating so much space when there’s just so much low end going on. His voice isn’t competing with the bass, and it’s not competing with the drums, it really stands out on its own. I was wondering if you had a secret for that, or any special techniques.
So much of it is this very clever subtractive EQ to make all the pieces fit.
These days, a lot of people track straight into the computer and then sum it in the box, not knowing the difference between recording and mixing. When you record, you go for the best sound, for the specific thing that you’re recording at that moment. But when you’re mixing, that’s irrelevant. It’s about putting all these great sounds together in a way that fits.
When you add 10, 30, or 100 things together that sound great by themselves, they don’t necessarily fit. So it’s carving out the right spaces. For example, finding the parts of the bass that you can dip, and what you leave full, and the parts of the voice that you can leave really beefy and what you can pull out, and have it still sound beefy.
The National records are special in that I’ve worked with those guys most of their career. I worked with them since their second record in 2002. They’re great personal friends of mine, some of my best friends. But our working relationship always provides for a very challenging process. There’s a lot of rerecording and redoing.
If you look at a record like Boxer, most of that was recorded and mixed here over a long period of time. With the new record, High Violet, they recorded a good chunk of it at their home studio. They built their own home studio and over the course of a year recorded it, then spent two and a half months here mixing it. So, needless to say, we did a lot more than just mix it.
It’s challenge because they come in with sounds with a lot of low end and low mid. Basically, a lot of mud. Then they say, “We don’t want you to take all the mud out.” So that certainly provides for an exceptional challenge, to make it sound like a record, but not so muddy that it’s an absolute mess.
The new record is definitely darker and thicker in certain spots than most records. That’s one of the challenges of being a producer and a mixer, to strike a balance between accommodating the band’s musical priorities with the logistical necessities of the sonics of a good mix.
On Boxer, some of the songs have this real lo-fi thing going on. Is that a desire of the band? As a producer, is it hard to do stuff like that because you don’t want people to think it sounds bad, but you want it to have this character.
With Boxer, I did something I never do; I gave the band a flat rate and a big amount of time because I already knew them so well. So I said, “Let’s do three months straight, this summer, for a discounted fee, just so no one worries.” They were so worried about money. It was just “OK, three months straight, let’s make a record.”
At the end of those three months, we were nowhere close to having a record. There was just so much spinning in circles, and change, and rewriting, and brand new songs. So I finally said, “You must leave and then come back with the record done for me to mix.”
Quite a few months later they came back and we mixed for a very long time — another month and a half, or something. Again, there was a lot of redoing, reworking and tweaking. In the time that they were gone, they recorded at least two or three songs that are on Boxer that sounded quite different, very lo-fi. Songs arrived with a certain style and aesthetic that suited them.
For example, a song like “Racing Like a Pro” has a lo-fi quality to it. A lot of the sounds have all the high end and low end knocked out of them. Like the strings, they certainly sound like something out of the ‘30s or ‘40s. That’s done very intentionally, I think, and works for the song.
So the National did the theme song for Win-Win, a new movie that got lot of buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Were there any special considerations you had to make to mix a song for a movie going audience as opposed to a full-length album experience?
Well, in a way, I think everybody felt a little more freedom to do whatever felt good for the song without having to worry about it fitting into the context of an entire record. And it's a fairly mellow song so there wasn't a lot of the sonic hurdles one has to deal with on a heavier arrangement.
The song, "Think You Can Wait," features vocals by Sharon Van Etten as well. How did you handle the balance between her delicate background vocals and MB’s strong vocal presence?
Fortunately, achieving a balance wasn't as much of a challenge as it often is because Matt and Sharon sing "around" each other. The vocal arrangement is quite effective in that respect. Matt Berninger's deep baritone can be hard to compete with sometimes, but Sharon's performance has so much character, with an almost Billie Holiday quality, that it more than holds its own. I didn't actually see the film until months after I mixed the song, but I can see an interesting relationship between the song and the central character of the film. There’s a cool detachment on the surface with a lot of emotion beneath everything pushing hard to get out. It like a lot of The National's songs.
Jónsi, the lead singer of Sigur Rós, recently came out with a solo record. He has such a distinctive voice, a much higher voice range, compared to Matt Berninger from The National. Tell me more about that record. Was that a challenge? I bet that was a fun album to make.
It was a challenge, but it was also one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had making records. First of all, Jónsi is such a great talent, and the music was so good. Sometimes you’ll make records that you like, but you don’t necessarily love. I loved his music, there was nothing about it I didn’t like.
The initial idea was to make an acoustic record with acoustic guitar and voice. He asked Nico Muhly to do some arrangements for string, brass, woodwind and double-bass. The big turning point, though, was that the first day of tracking; he showed up with a friend of his from Finland, Samuli Kosminen, to do some percussion.
That changed the entire course of the record. He is such a crazy drummer and so original and talented that we just kept throwing down crazy percussion on everything. It turned these mellow acoustic guitar songs into these really over-the-top sonic monsters by the time they were done.
If you listen to the percussion on that record, most of it is totally real and almost never sequenced, believe it or not. The kick drum was always done separately, oftentimes just with a mallet. Then he would do a couple overdubs and a couple passes of percussion overdubs. He would put piles of drums, cymbals, and other objects on the floor that I would record with just two mics.
There was no safety net. Most bands would freak out by that whole thought, but Jónsi was like, “This sounds incredible. Let’s keep moving.” I think it’s always a good sign when people in the control room start laughing about how great it is.
When it came time to mix the record, there was less to do. We’d gotten our crazy, over-the-top, carved-out sounds already. There were so many string overdubs that we ended up having to comp dozens of tracks down to stereo pairs to keep working on the songs. In fact, we never went back to the actual tracks. We just lived with the stems, because they were fine.
You know, there is some important studio gear of yours we didn’t get into. I’ve heard that you have an awesome collection of full size vintage gaming consoles!
Oh yeah, can’t live without those [laughing]. Yeah, we’ve got a nice little collection of Video Arcade Games for the clients — and us of course. A lot of the classics like Space Invaders, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Frogger, Star Wars and a bunch of others. We also have a good old fashioned, analog Tornado Storm II Foosball table!