Analog Dialog: Trina Shoemaker - A Badass Engineer with a Grammy on the Shelf and a Bun in the Oven
by Marsha Vdovin
It's always great to interview someone and feel like I've made a new friend (which actually happens with most interviews) but I really enjoyed interviewing Trina Shoemaker. She's extraordinarily down to earth and super funny. Actually the phone interview was a pain to transcribe because I laughed so loud. Trina is best known for engineering the Sheryl Crow albums The Globe Sessions and C'mon C'mon, Sheryl Crow came to Kingsway Studio in 1994 with her producer and engineer Bill Bottrell who left after a few days. Trina was independent at the time and the studio called her and asked if she could come in for a few days and work with Sheryl. She did and it worked out right away. Sheryl liked what was going on and saw no reason to change it. It evolved from that point. That was The Globe Sessions for which Trina won two Grammys. Trina also recently engineered Patti Scialfa's solo album 23rd Street Lullaby.
Where did you grow up and how did you get started?
I grew up in Joliet, Ill., a small steel town south of Chicago. Most famous for it's prison, Statesville, it is an old Midwestern town, with old closed-minded values. I left when I was 17. I was in band as a child. I played flute in the concert band and I marched with a tenor drum. My band director, Don Johnson, was my hero. When I was 13, he suggested I take an electric bass and amp home and learn to play. He wanted me to be the bass player in his high school jazz/R&B band. I did take it home, but sadly, my Dad and his friends made fun of me with that big bass and I brought it back teary-eyed to Mr. Johnson. A huge crossroad, unknown to me then, I'd have been a bass player now, and probably not an engineer at all.
I got my start as a maid in a New Orleans studio. They knew I wanted to be an assistant engineer but they said 'all we have is an opening to clean. I wasn't even a runner because they had a runner. I was the maid. The engineer there, David Farrell knew that I wanted to be an engineer so he'd let me come in the control room late at night and do some patches and touch the tape machine. This was back before all the digital stuff. There were tape machines, consoles, some outboard gear and some mics. I really did work my way up, making patch cables, learned how to recap a module. I made myself handy not as a full tech but as a partial tech - mostly making cables and making patch bays. At that time in New Orleans there weren't a lot of studios down here. There still isn't. There was no competition. It was the opposite of Los Angeles.
Do you and Sheryl have a special chemistry?
Probably, we're both from the Midwest, we're almost the same age. I know how to leave her alone. She knows how to make music and I know how to record it. I have a very good chemistry with most people I work with. You have to have good chemistry with everybody or you're not going to work. There's a good chemistry with Sheryl, we've know each other for a long time now so we've had time to have ups and downs and always come up.
There's a very different sonic quality between Globe Sessions and C'mon C'mon.
Totally. Globe was done all analog. C'mon involved a lot more people and 'producers' and was done on Pro Tools. Globe was a much simpler record and I like simple. I don't like complicated records, that's why I don't make pop records. I like real simple rock and roll records that are done quickly and capture the magic of the performance.
Do you have any comments on working with Jeff Trott (Sheryl's longtime guitarist, co-writer and producer)?
Jeff is so musical and such a delightful writer. First of all he is just an awesome person to be around. He's funny; he's creative and SMART. He's cute and always has great outfits. He's incredibly musical. I've been around when it's him and Sheryl writing and I've been witness to see them write hit songs.
His guitar tone is an afterthought. It's easy. The times I've recorded him, I just shove a 57 in front of him and its like, 'sounds great, here we go!'
Do you have a classic sound that you try to emulate?
Yes, Leon Russell's Carney Album from 1972. You could just sum it up in that record. I listen to that all the time. Also Muddy Waters' Hard Again, the one that Johnny Winters' produced. That's an amazing sounding record.
Do you have any experience with UA hardware?
Oh, yes! All of it. My whole career is based on an 1176. It's always been available in all the studios I worked in.
What is your standard vocal chain with Sheryl?
A 251 or 47 or 67 mic and Neve 1083, 1093, 1073 106-well, really any class A Neve pre amp and an 1176. The settings depend on how she is singing - loud or soft. Near 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock usually. There's so great mystery about it, it's just a great sounding compressor, and it's got a great gain. In a perfect world, I'd have all Neve pre amps, a bunch of cool mics and 15 to 20 1176s or LA2As. I have no set chain.
What's your favorite room to track in?
I recently tracked in the Warehouse in Vancouver, Bryan Adams studio. The big room sounded great. I love that room, I love Sunset Sound. I love Sound Factory for a really dead sound and Ocean Way Nashville, the big church.
Where was Patti's record done?
It was tracked in a house next door to Bruce (Springsteen) and Patti's. The great sound had a lot of that has to do with Steve Jordon (the producer) being a badass. It was like any other record, except we weren't in a studio we were in a house. We worked on it for a long time. She's very talented and funny. It was a great time.
So how does it feel to win a Grammy?
It's not really good. I wouldn't want to show up there and not win. I won't go again. That first time I was nominated and won, so why go again? One is plenty in a lifetime. I got mine. I was very uncomfortable, it was very long. My dress was uncomfortable. My stomach hurt and I was hungry but I'm thrilled that I won.
How about the TEC awards?
That was fun--that was a blast. And that was also a surprise. Whenever you win something, when your peers recognize you, it's amazing. But it's so different than my everyday life; I live in a ghetto in New Orleans. The funnest thing of all was meeting Les Paul. People are so nice there; I had more fun at TEC than the Grammys. TEC is where real people who make records got to hang out and talk.
Will you come to AES this year?
Trina accepting her TEC award
I don't think so. I'll be eight months pregnant and they won't let me on the plane.
UA [gear]--that's what I want to put on my baby shower registry. I want to register at Universal Audio. My son needs an 1176. He really, really needs one. I was hoping instead of diapers I could get gear, but I've been found out and I've been registered at Target.
Do you have a career highlight?
Wow, I can't pick out one moment. My whole my career has been amazing, You'd think it would be the Grammy thing, but I've had a lot bigger highs from being in the room with someone playing. I did get to record Neil Young. That was huge. It was on Emmylou Harris' record. Meeting these people and getting to record them is stunning. It's way too cool. Having Ben Harper show up at the studio and say 'Oh, I love your work' is amazing. It's often balanced by really tough situations. It's been a really good run.
What do you have coming up?
I'll probably do some recording with Sheryl this fall.
I recently saw the Tom Dowd documentary - a lot of his talent was in his chemistry with the artist.
Yeah, that's what it really comes down to. I can like certain gear, but the fact is it's about great musicians and good songs. My whole career is built on 'keep it simple'. Keep it nice and easy--What do you need? What's the minimum? I've never made a ton of money. I've made a great name for myself but not a million dollars.
Do you have a name for your unborn son in case someone wants to send him an 1176?
Yes, I'm naming him Waylon after Waylon Jennings because he's an outlaw and I love him.