The Exuberant Engineer

If you spend any time chatting with producer-engineer John Paterno, you can't help but notice his over-the-top passion for music and making records. Everything
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If you spend any time chatting with producer-engineer John Paterno, you can't help but notice his over-the-top passion for music and making records. Everything about the creative process gets him pumped — from helping artists find their inner voice to capturing spontaneous performances live in the studio. His fascination with gear, technology, and exploring sonic palettes is boundless. And he considers his other creative pursuits, including photography, to be outlets that enable him to focus more intently on his craft.

A Long Island native, he studied recording at the University of Miami, where his roommate was Joe Barresi. Armed with a degree in music, Paterno headed for the West Coast music mecca of Los Angeles in the early '90s. From assisting on sessions to engineering and mixing to producing, he's risen up the ranks and built a multipage list of credits in a career spanning 15 years.

He developed his studio chops during years of sessions with the famed production duo of Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom, working on projects for artists ranging from Los Lobos and the Latin Playboys to Suzanne Vega and Richard Thompson. Those productive years and the bountiful connections made during that time prepared Paterno for his multiple projects with TV-music maven Vonda Shepard and work with U.K. phenom Robbie Williams. He also worked on many sessions with artists such as Badly Drawn Boy, Robben Ford, Jeffrey Gaines, Ted Hawkins, Faith Hill, Jackshit, Particle, Bonnie Raitt, Soul Coughing, and the Thrills.

Paterno won a Latin Grammy Award in 2004 for his engineering and mixing work with Colombian singer-songwriter Soraya. He's also engineered or mixed a number of movie soundtracks, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Universal, 2000), Steal This Movie (Lions Gate, 2000), and Feeling Minnesota (Fine Line Features, 1996).

How did you become interested in making records?

I've been interested in making records since I was a kid. What fascinates me is that trapped in those bits or rust particles is an energy, and it's always there. One of my favorite examples is the count-off in “I Saw Her Standing There” by the Beatles. I've always been attracted by the fact that records capture energy, and that that energy is available to you anytime you want it.

I've also played guitar in bands and have always been into gear and how it interfaces with guitars. I'm interested in how systems are put together. I was accepted into the University of Miami's recording program, where I earned a degree in music with a minor in electrical engineering.

Why Los Angeles, and what was your first gig?

At the time, I had three choices: I could go to New York, Nashville, or Los Angeles. My friend Joe Barresi, who had established himself in L.A., influenced my decision. On a visit there, while out bowling, I was introduced to the studio manager from Cornerstone Recorders. Six weeks later I was offered a freelance gig assisting at Cornerstone. I continued freelance assisting, which allowed me to work in various studios and experience the different ways that producers and engineers work. A year later Sunset Sound hired me as a staff engineer, and I stayed there for five or six years. That's how I got hooked up with Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom.

What was it like working with them?

My first time working with Tchad and Mitchell was a two-week stint on a Peter Case record. They barely spoke to me the whole time. All they gave me was their food order! The next project with them was a Los Lobos record. The studio manager suggested I bring a book to read because Tchad did all his own patching. Tchad had come up through Sound Factory [also owned by Sunset Sound], so he knew the rooms extremely well and would work solo. He's a wonderful guy but can be intimidating because he's very intense when he works.

Because I was determined not to sit around for six weeks, I planted myself between Tchad and the patch bay. Sound Factory's pretty small, and I figured that Tchad would either ask me to do things or get up and walk around me. After watching Tchad, I was able to anticipate his needs and set him up so that he could continue working. From this, a friendship and working relationship was born. These were the sessions for Kiko [Warner Brothers, 1992]. The band would show up late, and it gave Tchad and me time to hang out. Our backgrounds were so different, but we shared this common thing — the Beatles. We'd listen to Beatles records for hours and really got on. I worked on all of his sessions for the next four to five years.

At what point did your focus shift from assisting to engineering?

My goal was always to be an engineer-producer, and I was afforded opportunities when Tchad and other producers recommended me for gigs. One of my first records was Ted Hawkins's The Next Hundred Years. I continued to assist while looking for recording opportunities. That eventually led to engineering a record with That Dog (an L.A. band), which signaled the end of my assisting days.

You worked with Vonda Shepard during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when she was involved with the hit TV showAlly McBeal.

Yes. That was right at the time that the show was taking off, so I got to record the TV-show stuff as well. Mitchell recommended me to her. I started out doing some overdubs and ended up recording a lot of stuff for her. She was great to work with. Even though only 30 seconds of a song might end up on TV, we would do whole, or nearly whole, takes of songs. The sessions could be intense; sometimes we had to record five songs in a day, mix them, and have them ready for the next day on set.

I've always been fast, and my approach was to make sure the focus was on the transparency of the recording process. The last thing you want is a musician sitting around getting bored. Boredom is the antithesis of creativity. No matter what my function on the session, I never want to be the slowest guy in the room; I never want anyone waiting for me. The focus has to be on the pace of the artist and the creative process. The TV thing was great for sharpening my skills.

Tell me about transitioning into a personal-studio environment.

FIG. 1: With minimal acoustic treatment, and by keeping the volume low, Paterno is able to get accurate results from mixing in his control room.

For the past several years, I've been mixing more records at home in the computer. There are things I miss about traditional studios — mainly the support staff and the recording spaces. But in a home studio, you don't have the time or financial constraints that you have in a conventional studio. I can take the time to rerecord things at my home studio [see Fig. 1]: I can take a sound, run it through my gear, and record it back to get a sound I'm happy with.

The recall thing is great, too — being able to work on something and open it up later and have it exactly the way you left it. That's huge, because it's something you can't do in a conventional studio. Even when you do recalls on a console, they don't always come back 100 percent.

In a home studio, I tend to work independently. I'll do the mix, pop it up on my iDisk, and the client downloads it on their end. Clients can make better judgments in their own listening environments. Usually I'll get emails with comments and changes, which I prefer to doing verbally because there is a written chain of revisions. I address the changes and upload revisions until the mix is approved.

I understand that both the recording and the mixing of Roger Joseph Manning Jr.'s recent record,The Land of Pure Imagination[see Fig. 2], was done from both of your home studios.

FIG. 2: When Paterno mixed Roger Joseph Manning Jr.''s recent CD Solid-State Warrior, most of his interaction with Manning was online. They corresponded by email and Paterno posted mixes on his iDisk for Manning to download and audition.

Roger had been recording this record from his home studio for two or three years. Upon a recommendation, we got together at his place to listen to what he was doing and to see if I could bring something to it. He put an incredible amount of time and effort into it. The tracks were dense at times, and the arrangements were really cool. It ran a wide gamut stylistically. Because of the distance between our places, it wasn't practical for him to come by every day, so I suggested using my iDisk to get mixes to him. We went through all the songs, made revisions, and took care of most of the comments via email. Just before the final mixes were printed, we spent two days together making final changes. I mastered the record as well using my iDisk to transmit the final version.

Describe the gear in your studio.

[Digidesign] Pro Tools is the centerpiece of my setup. I've got an HD3 rig with one Accel card and have yet to do a mix where I've run out of processing. I have two 192s [digital I/O units], and another one that stays with my cartage company. I had been using a trackball but recently picked up a [Digidesign] Command 8 control surface for some of its features. There are buttons you can get to that are easier to access than pull-down menus. I can grab a fader if I need to set up a quick mix. I'm using an Apple Power Mac G5 with a dual 2 GHz processor.

When did you first work with Pro Tools?

When I was engineering, a Pro Tools operator would be brought in to do whatever fixes were necessary. The producer would leave and I'd have to sit there and say, “Yes. No. Move it forward. Move it back.” I finally got my own setup so I could do it myself. At first, it was used to augment analog sessions, but as time went on, it became more of the recording medium. My first record where the whole thing stayed in Pro Tools was Badly Drawn Boy's Have You Fed the Fish? I worked with Tom Rothrock, who's also worked with Elliott Smith, James Blunt, and others. I called him to have lunch and was invited to record drums on the record.

We tracked at Cello Studios and did overdubs at Tom's. That's when the migration to Pro Tools began for me — around 2001, right before the HD stuff came out. I cut my next record on tape and transferred it to my new HD system. There have been a few tape things since, but the majority of projects have been done entirely in Pro Tools.

Any insights about getting the most out of Pro Tools?

Pro Tools is a tool, so it helps to understand what you can and cannot do with it. The same goes for plug-ins and outboard gear. It also helps to understand how Pro Tools interacts and interfaces with your other gear. Experimenting is the only way for me to figure out these kinds of things — to make it an extension of what I'm going after as opposed to a hurdle to get over. I mean that from a sonic perspective as well as from an editing or technical perspective. I know it sounds simplistic, but it is amazing how many people don't take the time — on their own time and not a client's — to sort these things out.

Do you use a lot of plug-ins?

Not a ton. I love the McDSP FilterBank plug-ins — the EQ and the filters. I'm getting into the Analog Channel as well. I like the Cranesong Phoenix for some things. I'm using Celemony Melodyne and quite a few of the Native Instruments synths and sample-based programs. I like [Audio Ease] Altiverb, too. I have standard stuff like Antares Auto-Tune. I tend to use plug-ins that help me deliver what I hear in my head.

What outboard gear do you have?

A lot of mic pres, EQs, compressors, and guitar pedals. I love the Chandler stuff, especially the TG Channel. I've got a Little Labs PCP, which converts line-level to instrument-level signals so I can reamp stuff. I can run things through guitar pedals, and then record them back in. The Little Labs IBP [analog phase-alignment tool] can be a lifesaver. Both have amazing-sounding DIs. I use an Empirical Labs Distressor; it's brilliant. I also use an Alan Smart CL2 stereo compressor on the stereo bus as part of my mix chain.

Are you a fan of vintage gear?

I've got a few things, like LA3As, Spectrasonic 610s [compressors], and an Altec 438A, but in general, I can't justify the expense. If I'm going to spend money on old gear, it's going to be on instruments, guitar amps, and things like that. I've yet to hear a preamp inspire a person, but put a great guitar or amp in a musician's hands, and that makes a difference.

Besides the obvious ones, what are some of the challenges of working in a small room?

Getting the monitors to make sense. I put up treatment to control some of the high-frequency flutter, but I got lucky with this tiny room! I use NHT M-00s with the S-00 sub for monitoring. They sound fantastic. I can hear a lot of detail without having to crank them up. Fortunately, room anomalies don't come into play for me as much as for someone who's turning it up all the time. The room just doesn't get “involved” when listening at lower volumes. I've got it dialed in to where it sounds good to me.

Interfacing is a problem, too. I have to climb around the racks to plug things in. I could get a patch bay made, but I like the signal path to be as short as possible. Also, there's a lot of gear I want to have access to, so things are pretty tight — for example, the 192s are underneath the table. I use a Mackie Big Knob for monitoring, which has all the functionality I need. It has four stereo inputs, three speaker outs, a mono button, a dim button, and two separate headphone sends. Some say it colors the sound, but I'm happy with the monitoring. And let's not forget the room, too — more than two people is remarkably cramped.

Any must-have gear?

NHT makes M-20s, which I take when I track and mix in other rooms. They have midrange detail but are full range as well. I use Sennheiser HD650 headphones that are audiophile-style and great for listening for breath noises, reverb decays, and things you might not notice sitting in front of speakers all day.

Have you brought any insights or techniques from the big studios into your personal studio?

There are a few, but the main one is to make decisions. There is something to be said for knowing when a performance is acceptable and when it is crap. Just because Pro Tools lets you save every scrap of audio you record doesn't mean you should. Additionally, session files should be easily understood. That means you have to label tracks; mute, disable, and hide unused items; and include any necessary information for the next person working on the session. Lastly, crossfade your audio regions. There is nothing more distracting than hearing a bunch of weird clicks as a track plays down because the regions were not crossfaded. And it's even more of a hassle when the regions in question have been consolidated into a continuous file. In short, turn over a session as you would want it handed to you.

FIG.3: Paterno in the studio during a recent project with a band called The Big Provider. He convinced them that they''d get better results if they recorded their parts together rather than by layering them separately, as they''d done in the past.

What's your recording philosophy as a producer?

The initial process is the raw-material process. I try to get great performances and enough takes so I have it covered. Then I can fine-tune it as necessary. And that doesn't mean using Beat Detective or slicing it up and making it “perfect.” It means selecting the best performances. I'm currently producing the Big Provider, a band from San Diego [see Fig. 3]. I love what they do. In four days, we cut 11 songs, did a bunch of guitar overdubs, and sang half the lead vocals and background vocals. The band was thrilled with the rough tracks, despite their initial apprehension to record while playing together (their previous experience involved each member recording their parts separately). As the producer, I felt their energy and interaction would translate better when they played together.

I did the same last year with a band called Lustra, and they've repeatedly told me it was the best recording experience they've ever had. Currently, I'm finishing up mixing a second record for Jackshit [see Fig. 4], which has drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher from Elvis Costello's Imposters, along with guitarist Val McCallum. Same basic approach, although usually it's just one take with those guys.

FIG. 4: Jackshit in Paterno''s studio (left to right): Val McCallum, Davey Faragher and Pete Thomas. Farager and Thomas are also in Elvis Costello''s band, the Imposters.

You seem to be chameleon-like in your approach to making records.

I'm truly attracted to all kinds of music. It doesn't matter what the genre is. I love the philosophical aspect of making records. I like finding ways to enable artists to get to their “truth.” Sometimes it's being more hands-off, or sometimes it's helping them figure out chords, arrangements, and things like that. I guess that's what I mean by the philosophy of it: I want to make records that are unique to the artist.

What are some of the highlights?

There have been quite a few, but here's one with a cool thread to it. Through Vonda I met Michael Landau, who was one of my guitar heroes when I was in college. He played on a ton of records. But I'd lived in Los Angeles for ten years and never came across him on a session. It was great when we met, because he was a big fan of stuff that I'd worked on, like the Los Lobos records, and I was a fan of his. I got to record a little song called “The Blue Horn” that he did at his house, and it's still one of my favorites. Mike, in turn, recommended me to a producer in Nashville named Byron Gallimore, who has produced Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, among others. When Byron came here to record Tim, Mike recommended me, and that turned into a bunch of extra things.

It's funny how one little thing runs you off into another. Mitchell Froom put out a solo-piano record last year and asked me to coproduce it. He's shown a lot of trust in me and has been an amazing supporter. I love working for him and always learn something. His focus, his sense of music, his sense of harmony is great. And Tchad is the same way. We're still good friends. I learned a lot about making records from them. When you spend five years with people, their philosophies and ways of working definitely rub off on you.

How did you start working with Robbie Williams?

One of my best friends, Jeremy Stacey, who I met in '95 when he was looking for an engineer, is a drummer and producer from England. Jeremy was playing on Robbie's Escapology [Virgin, 2003] at Conway in 2002, so I went down to hang out. Due to looming deadlines, I was asked to record one song. Two years later I got a call from the A&R guy, Chris Briggs, asking about my availability to help finish the new Robbie record with new producer and cowriter Stephen Duffy. It was an interesting project; we were sorting through two and a half years of Pro Tools sessions recorded all over the world. We overdubbed, edited, and molded the songs into shape. Stephen gave me a lot of room creatively to try things, and I really appreciated that. It was one of the most challenging things I've done.

Do you make your own music?

When I moved to L.A., I had the foolish idea that I'd actually be able to play guitar and work in a studio at the same time. After my first 100-hour workweek, there was no way. I've always wanted to produce, and I decided that working in a studio was what I needed to do. I have occasionally played guitar or piano on a record, and it's been a blast.

It's funny — I learned more about music by watching guys like David Hidalgo [from Los Lobos], Mike Landau, Jeremy Stacey, Mitchell, Davey, Pete, Val, and a lot of other great players than I did from my years at school. I always learn something from everyone I come across.

Diane Gershuny is a freelance writer and publicist who has written about music and musicians, instruments, and pro audio for more than 20 years. She's worked for companies such as Fender, Mackie, and Tascam.

John Paterno: A Selected Discography

Roger Joseph Manning Jr., The Land of Pure Imagination (Cordless Records, 2006); M, Ma

Marco Benevento, Best Reason to Buy the Sun (Rope-a-Dope, 2005); E, M

Mitchell Froom, A Thousand Days (Inner Knot, 2005); P, E, M, Ma

The Stands, Horse Fabulous (Liberation Music, 2005); E, M

The Warlocks, Surgery (Mute, 2005); E

Robbie Williams, Intensive Care (EMI, 2005); E, G, M (B-sides only)

The Black Mollys, Overnight Disgrace (Vital, 2004); P, E, M

Particle, Launchpad (OR, 2004); P, E, M

Soraya, Soraya (EMI Int'l., 2003); E, M

The Thrills, So Much for the City (Virgin, 2003); E

Badly Drawn Boy, Have You Fed the Fish? (Artist Direct BMG, 2002); E

Jackshit, Jackshit (Evangeline, 2002); E, M

Mia Doi Todd, Golden State (Sony, 2002); E, M

Tim McGraw, Set This Circus Down (Curb, 2001); E

Joan Osborne, Righteous Love (Interscope, 2000); E

Los Lobos, Colossal Head (Warner Bros., 1996); E

Ted Hawkins, The Next Hundred Years (Geffen, 1994); E, M

P = producer, E = engineer, M = mixer, Ma = mastering engineer, G = guitar