On Adaptability and His Rare Book Room
Recent Projects: Spoon, Deerhunter
New York-based indie producer and engineer Nicolas Vernhes talks about the gear he relies on, his recording process with 24 channels of Apogee’s Symphony System, and what makes a record memorable
Brooklyn’s Rare Book Room is not where you go to read Dostoevsky. It’s where bands and artists like Dirty Projectors, Steve Wynn, Lia Ices, Animal Collective and Spoon go to make their records with the help of the studio and label’s founder, mixer Nicolas Vernhes. Since 2006, Nicolas has been using Apogee’s AD-16X, DA-16X and Rosetta 800s for 24 channels of I/O. “I am very happy with the sound quality and ability to switch between Pro Tools HD2 and Logic/Symphony,” he says. “In fact, I was a die hard Logic user since 1999 and only got Pro Tools when making the last Spoon record, and it was a blessing to know I could keep using my converters and just buy the core cards and HD daughter cards.” Given the ability to easily alternate between applications, Nicolas avoided the potential frustration of having to not only buy additional interfaces but also to constantly rewire his setup. “I thank the foresight of Apogee’s technical staff for allowing me such flexibility.”
“I was a die hard Logic user since 1999 and only got Pro Tools when making the last Spoon record, and it was a blessing to know I could keep using my converters and just buy the core cards and HD daughter cards”
How did you start your career as an engineer and as the founder of Rare Book Room?
I was in a band in New York in the early 90’s and we were doing music that was “difficult” for us to play, so we liked to experiment a lot in the studio. Renting one by the hour became too expensive, so we got a new space in ’95 in Williamsburg where we could live, play and record. We had always dreamt of a rehearsal space where we could leave our stuff set up all the time, which was impossible when sharing. Little by little, I added a small Trident 65 board and a 3M M79 16 track 2″ recorder, bought some mics and started doing what we’d always wanted: recording our rehearsals with studio fidelity. Friends heard about the space and asked me to record them. I’d never done it before, and certainly never with the intent of it sounding traditional, so it was a challenge, but I loved it. As that developed, my interest in the band slowly waned and I transitioned to recording other bands full time.
What are some of your most memorable mixing/engineering moments in the studio?
Mixing is never that memorable: it’s mostly methodical, fixing issues and basically all about building the song up to be the best version of that song possible. Whereas recording is always a half disaster, mostly when everyone’s out in the live room playing together, which is why it’s so much fun.
What are your early music influences?
I grew up in semi-rural Connecticut and we had a great college station, WXCI, which played a lot of punk/new wave, so I grew up on Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, Wire, Modern Lovers, VU, Joy Division, PIL, etc.
How do you approach engineering and mixing a project?
It’s different every time. I rarely use the same systems every time. Instead I try to tailor what I know to the band’s vision, not the other way around. It can be a problem, as in “what’s that mic good for again?”, or “why does the kick drum sound so horrendous today” but in the end it has forced me to be very flexible and attentive to the band and what they want. Essentially, I listen very carefully to what they say, in the casual minutes before we set up mics and start rolling, and I make sure to remember that till the very end.
What is your gear setup?
For analog, it’s my 3M M79 from 1973, which is now a 24 track machine, going through the MCI 536 which was completely rebuilt by Coral Sound (Matt Marinelli) and Purple Audio (Andrew Roberts). On the digital side, I use Logic Pro or Pro Tools HD2 via the Apogee AD-16X, DA-16X and Rosetta 800 which yields 24 channels of I/O. My connections to the tape machine and computer are on DL’s, so I can switch between them in a few seconds. I use a lot of outboard pre’s: API, Telefunken V72’s, Vintech x73i, Drawmer 1960, Manley EloP compressor, and a pretty useful, if one is careful, Universal Audio 6176. Mics are pretty standard (Akg 414 TLII, Shure 57 and 58, Coles 4038 (amazing), Lomo 19a19 (Russian tube mic), and some Stephen Sank modified Electro-Voice and Beyerdynamic ribbons. I monitor through ADAM S3a’s with the matching sub.
Rare Book Room is also a label… What is the concept behind it and what are you trying to achieve with it? What are you looking for?
The label was begun because I wanted to branch out of being in the studio 14 hours a day and still be involved in music. People can have a good thing going, with solid songs, but when the record is made it doesn’t always capture what’s essential about them. I wanted to start picking bands I thought could benefit from a carefully made record with little attention to the clock — obviously, having my own space makes that easier than if I had to rent out a spot for a few weeks. A lot of bands still come to me before they have a label, so I thought if I could put together a capable system of distribution and PR, then it might be worth offering young artists the chance to make a great record and get out there and be heard. It’s not the easiest job in the world, and it is very time consuming because I’m still in the studio all the time, but I see it as a building block to knowing more and more about how music gets made and heard, which was the impetus behind the studio once I began doing that full time.
There are currently 5 artists on the label: Palms, Lia Ices, Talk Normal, Sebastian Blanck and now Banjo or Freakout. I don’t necessarily do multi-record deals, so for example Lia Ices is now on Jagjaguwar, but Lia asked me to help make her new record, which is out early in 2011, and it is stunning.
Do you have any tips or tricks for the aspiring engineer?
Don’t force the band into your way of working. You are there to help them figure out the best way to make the music in their heads come alive as a recording. It’s teamwork through and through. The gear is there to serve the song and the vision. If you know how the studio works, just be very attentive. I’m naturally drawn to music that’s both catchy/hypnotic and experimental, and the best expression of that is when music ends up sounding new and somehow old at the same time — familiar and confusing.
Where did you grow up?I grew up in Paris and moved to the states when I was 12. I ended up in NY at 20 to finish college, thinking I might go back to France afterwards and knew I could not go back before living here. I never left
What do you think makes a memorable record?
When I feel there’s something very important happening and that it has been captured in the most self-effacing way possible. I hate hearing the producer/engineer. I also hate when I can hear the band thinking.
Rare Book Room Studio