Studio To Go

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Sugarcult's Tim Pagnotta takes his recording rig with him—even when he's tracking at a commercial studio.

In this photo of Sugarcult, Tim Pagnotta is second from left.
photo: Yoshika Horita

When Tim Pagnotta, lead singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist for the pop-punk group Sugarcult was contemplating purchasing personal-studio gear, a number of people he knew warned him against it. "You don't want to do that," they said. "Spend your time writing songs instead." They predicted that he would be so absorbed with learning and operating the equipment that it would take his focus off of songwriting.


Instead, having a studio has opened up many new avenues for Pagnotta and has actually enhanced his songwriting. "Now my song ideas are accompanied by some production," he says. "I found that buying this equipment was super liberating."

Pagnotta's studio is a completely portable, computer-based setup, housed in road cases. For the recording of Sugarcult's latest CD Palm Trees and Power Lines (Artemis, 2004; see Fig. 1)-which is a follow up the band's debut Start Static (Ultimatum, 2001)-Pagnotta set up his rig in an adjacent room of the studio, and used it to record a variety of tracks. "We just kept two studios rolling at once," he explains, "I was recording harmonies in the back room, or recording lead vocals in the back room, recording percussion, recording some extra guitar, putting whatever overdubs needed to go down."

I had a chance to talk to Pagnotta, and he had plenty to say about the recording of the band's latest CD, how he used his gear in that process, and the advantages of owning one's own setup.

What made you decide to put together such a portable recording rig?
I've found that sometimes when you make a record, you want to bring to the studio that piece of gear that you can't live without; much like you play your favorite guitar on an album. So I keep my stuff in flight cases so if I move or if I'm not home, or if I have to put it in storage, or if I'm going to a studio, I can just throw some lids on it and just wheel it into the next place. And nowadays, most recording studios will have a little satellite room-it might be the lounge, or whatever. But you'll find me with all my gear in there, doing additional overdubs and stuff.

So you'll bring your recording rig to whatever commercial studio you're working at?
Absolutely. What I was saying before is that I've found an attachment with my equipment in the same way that you have an attachment with your favorite guitar—you feel you can commit to a sound using a certain piece of gear that you like. So if you go to a studio and they don't have it you go, "alright, well I really love the way bass guitar sounds through a 1073 mic pre, so if the studio doesn't have it, at least I'll bring in mine."

Describe your setup.
I have Mac G4 and I have Pro Tools, and I have a TDM system. What I use to monitor, instead of having a big console, I have this thing made by a guy named Steve Firlotte, he owns a company called Inward Connections. It's called a DMC (Discrete Monitoring Center). And it has a sound, just like any console does. So instead of just monitoring right out of Pro Tools, I go through it and print back into Pro Tools from it to get a sound out of it. So I run my Pro Tools mix through it and then I have a choice: I can go back into Pro Tools or I can print to a tape machine—I can print to whatever I'd like.

How does the DMC sound?
The transformers in it seem like they just go to infinity, they don't cut off after like 14K. So it's just like an open, big-wide sound like you'd get from a big console. It's a bit of an expensive endeavor, but if you spend thousands of dollars finding and buying nice microphones, nice mic pres, nice compressors, and high-grade cables, then what are you going to do at the end of the day? Run it through a [cheap] board where the stereo bus components were all of 75 cents, or run it though the best transformers they make on the planet, to continue a really powerful signal flow?

So you go back digital to analog with your mix to run it through the DMC, and then back digital again to go into Pro Tools? The sound of the DMC is so good that it's worth going through the extra A/D/A conversions?
It just has a cool sound. Just like if you were going to run something through a pair of EQs that you liked; it sounds a little bit warmer. It just has something that's worth it to me to print to. And then I have an option: I can listen back and listen to the stereo mix that I bounced down onto inside Pro Tools or the stereo mix that I recorded back [through the DMC] onto available stereo tracks.

FIG. 1: Pagnotta brought his studio rig with him when the band tracked the new CD, and set it up in a side room to overdub additional parts.

And generally you like the one from the DMC better?
Yeah, yeah. Typically it's cooler.

What Pro Tools hardware are you using? Do you use any of their control surfaces?
No, I just use an 888 from Digidesign.

Do you just mix with the mouse then?

It doesn't bother you? Some people don't like mixing like that.
Some people really like using a [control] surface, and I've been in many studios that use one, but I don't really care. My display [computer monitor] is big, so I can see most of the tracks. It doesn't really bother me. I don't need to touch it. I don't need to touch something.

What type of studio monitors do you use?
I use [Yamaha] NS-10s with a sub.

What kind of sub?
There's a company in North Hollywood, I think they're called American Audio, and they custom make them.

What about mics and pres?
For mic pres I have a pair of Vintech 1073 knock offs, they're called X73s. They're really expensive and fancy and nice. They're exactly like a 1073, all the same EQ points. I have a pair of Urei 1176s, I have an Avalon VT-737SP, and I have a pair of Quad/Eight mic pres that were taken out of a Quad/Eight Coranado console.

How do you integrate this setup into the recording of your CDs in a commercial studio?
I use it all at home as a giant scratch pad. It's great for pre-production, and the benefit is: what I'm getting, I can keep. The last song on our record ["Sign Off"] I recorded myself, just up late one day at the studio. I just tracked it all and just kept it all and put it on the record. It's a scratch pad, but it's also a high-quality studio. On the last record [Palm Trees and Power Lines] I brought all my stuff down to help speed up the process of recording. And sort of multitask. Normally there's so much downtime when you're in a studio. And when the producer and engineer is working with one guy, you can either all just sit around, or you can continue working.

Pagnotta has found that having his own recording setup has not only helped his songwriting, but also made it easier for him to communicate with engineers and producers.
photo: Yoshika Horita

So for you, there isn't much difference between the experience of recording at home and recording in the studio?
For me it's really the same thing. Right now, I'm hanging out with Gavin MacKillop, who produced our last record. And what I'm going to do is do some demos on my gear and then bring my FireWire drive to his studio—the same one we did our record at—throw it up on his computer, span it across the console, and we can take a look at it in a way that lets you really dissect a song and manipulate arrangements, little things like that.

Do you record drums at your studio?
No. I don't. There's a lot you can do at your home studio, including drums. But I found that it's better to have a really big room, and nice mic pres and lots of mics.

Tell me about the mics you use.
My main vocal mic is a Neumann [Gefell] CMV563. It's a bottle mic; shaped like a bottle.

What sort of a mic is it?
It has several different capsules that you can twist off the top. It's similar to the Blue Bottle mic, which was based on this mic. It's probably a mic made around the '60s, and you twist off a capsule when you want to change polar pattern. I have the cardioid capsule, which is called the M 7 and I have the figure-8, which is called the M 8. The M 9 is omni, and there's another capsule called the M-55 that's just this real sensitive, extremely hot omnidirectional capsule. It's a cool mic, a really cool mic. And then I have these nice ribbon mics made by Royer Labs called R-121s.

What do you use them on?
I use those on guitars, they sound great on guitars. The cool thing about ribbon mics is if you're recording something that sounds a little bit bright, maybe piercing, like guitars do, they kind of smooth out the sound. The R-121s are great on a guitar, in conjunction with a mic like a [Shure SM] 57 or a Sennheiser 421.

Since ribbon mics are figure-8, do you get a lot of room sound?
Yeah, and people recommend facing the back of it, like to an acoustic guitar. I hear the back of it is a little bit brighter than the front. That's what I've heard, a rumor, I could be totally wrong.

Are most of the vocals on the CD done through that mic?
No, on our record, I recorded most of the lead vocals with Gavin. I used the CMV for little odds and ends and backup shouts and scream alongs, and stuff like that where the lead vocal ends and some new kind of vocal comes in.

What did Gavin use on the main lead vocals?
The main lead vocal mic was a Neumann M149.

How did you get your production knowledge?
I've always been really fascinated by recording. Out of high school, I went to a junior college and I took a sound engineering course at the local school. They didn't have Pro Tools yet, because the only way to buy Pro Tools was to get the big monster systems—OO1's weren't around then. You couldn't get like an M-Box or an 001, there was no inexpensive way to get into Pro Tools. Pro Tools was still 16-bit, and insanely expensive. Very few people had it. Rigs rented out for $1,000 a day.

I was always really interested in recording, because when I hear songs in my head, when I'm about to write a song, I hear production along with it. I hear drums getting bigger I hear guitars getting smaller, I hear vocals having filtered mono aesthetics to them, in my head as I'm trying to come up with the song. So production has always accompanied a song idea.

Since you've now had your studio for several years, I assume that the knowledge that you've picked came in handy when recording Palm Trees and Power Lines?
I feel like I'm now a great translator for my band to the producer. Because I will know what kind of a sound maybe our guitar player wants. He will be having a hard time trying to describe it to a producer, and maybe he'll be pulling out CDs to show what he wants. "Well I sort of want it to sound like this, but not really," and trying to give them something to reference from. But then I'll just say, "What he means is he wants his tone to sound bandpassed, or wants a highpass filter to cut off all the low end." It's really become sort of a language that I use.

But you hadn't yet refined your knowledge of recording when Sugarcult recorded the first CD back in 2001.
When we made our first record with [producer] Matt Wallace, our drummer—he doesn't play drums with us anymore—had a knowledge of Pro Tools. I felt I was often left out of the conversations by not really knowing the language, and not knowing really how to communicate with an engineer or a producer what I was trying to go for. I was trying to describe the sound I wanted. I was trying to describe in esoteric ways how I wanted something to sound bigger versus saying "Can it be compressed more?" "Can we use a little bit more EQ?" "Can we have the reverb not be so bright?" Learning my way around a studio and having a knowledge of studio equipment is like learning a language to communicate to an engineer or a producer what we're trying to go for; what we want.

In addition to what you've learned from using your own gear, I guess you've picked up a lot by watching the engineers and producers you've worked with.
I learned from making records with producers and being side by side with some really great guys like Tom Lord-Alge, who mixed our record, Mark Trombino who's done almost all the Jimmy Eat World records. Gavin, who produced our last record is amazing. And then Matt Wallace who is an extremely great communicator and is a really inspiring person to work around. He keeps the energy in the studio really positive. He likes to track a band in a much more natural environment to make sure personalities come through in the recording. So I feel like a sponge, and I'm learning.

So having your own studio has made a real difference for you in a lot of ways.
It's such an invaluable investment and I feel completely liberated.

How has it helped your songwriting?
It's amazing, I could sing someone a song in a room on acoustic guitar, or I could play that same song and multitrack it and throw a harmony on the chorus, and it can evoke to separately different feelings from a listener. It's helpful for when you're recording songs and giving them to your record company. Because before you make a record, usually, you submit the songs that they're going to lay down a quarter million dollars for you to record. It's sure nice to go into that meeting with a CD of multitrack recordings.

Mike Levine is a senior editor at EM.