Smile Politely

Master Tracks, volume three: James Treichler’s Wave Upon Wave

If you’ve been following along, I have previously written about my brief conversations with Mark Wyman of ToneGood Studio, and Ryan Groff of Perennial Sound. I really enjoyed the stark contrast between Wyman and Groff’s respective philosophies as engineers. I asked, as I always do, whether they sought to capture a great song, live, or whether they sought to elevate a song to a refined point beyond the live take. They essentially took completely opposite approaches, each articulating quite compelling observations as to which they preferred and why: Wyman favoring the organic mojo of a great live take, Groff favoring the perfection and elevation of a more pristine, polished, end result.

Who, then, could be trusted to break this deadlock? Who could resolve, once and for all, whether the Champaign-Urbana recording scene was going to be defined by its rawness or its refinement? Both Wyman and Groff had each already suggested that I reach out to one particular individual: James Treichler of Wave Upon Wave.

If you are a fan of the Champaign Urbana music scene, you have probably seen James a time or two. As a drummer, he plays with two of Champaign’s more beloved bands: Elsinore and Dirty Feathers, amongst others. In addition to being an active gigging-musician, he is extremely active in the recording scene, working as an engineer and producer out of the late Pogo Studio, Earth Analog Studio, and his own home-studio. His client list boasts credits for work with Rebecca Rego & The Trainmen, Emily Blue, Kenna Mae, and Tigerbeat, amongst others.

Thus, having received multiple recommendations, and having an excellent resume, Treichler seemed a logical choice to break the deadlock that was on literally every citizen of C-U’s mind: Do we want the raw or polished take? His answer: Seek to find balance between the two.

I caught up with James for a few minutes at Wave Upon Wave. As a drummer, it was a haven of holy grail gear, with multiple great kits, and a vast array of cymbals. The space was cozy and inviting, with multiple rooms for isolation. Definitely a spot I could see making a record in. While we talked at much greater length, the following is an excerpt of our conversation.

Smile Politely: Tell me about the name of your studio.

James Treichler: For this space, I go by Wave Upon Wave. I’ve held that name for about a decade now. I guess technically over that. It includes this space, but it’s also my business entity, which includes freelance work wherever I’m at. This home studio connects the dots between the other places where I will do work. I do a lot of work out of Earth Analog, I’ll take some sessions over to Perennial, and then we have Bull & Dog opening up downtown in the old Pogo space, where I used to work.

SP: Nice.

JT: I kind of bounced around. I do a lot of mixing here. I like to take time. Whenever the moment strikes for creative ideas, I can just pop down here. A lot of studios, you’re kind of in someone else’s world a little bit. Even like Earth Analog, where I have worked a lot, I’m really comfortable in there, but it’s nice to have a little place where you know your setup.

SP: Absolutely. So how did you get started in recording?

JT: Well, when I was pretty young, I was lucky to always have older friends playing in bands, and I played in my first punk rock, high school thing when I was — well, I probably wasn’t even in high school yet — I was like, fourteen. There was a little studio in Decatur, where I grew up, called “Pieces of 8,” run by a guy named Barry Dillman. Awesome, awesome old guy, that just had like an ADAT machine, an old little analog console — I’d have no idea what it was, today — but that was my first introduction to it. It was just in his little house, drums were in what was probably a bedroom, guitar cabinets were in the kitchen, that kind of thing. Totally fun, but it was that kind of setup.

Then I got pretty lucky. Another band that I was playing with wanted to come up here to Champaign to record. Growing up, Champaign was where all the music was, and everything, so we came up here and got to record with Mark [Rubel] at Pogo. That was eye opening. Obviously, getting to meet Mark and be in that studio space. Did you ever go into the old Pogo?

SP: Yeah! I did. I recorded a little demo there quite a while ago.

JT: So yeah. To be sixteen and go in there was pretty eye opening. But I mean, to be honest, that process of being so young, and pretty inexperienced, I got those doors opened for me because I was a drummer. So that was what got me into studios. But then the thing that always got me, was going into the studio, and being like, “Alright, we’re doing this album in a day,” or whatever, with a limited budget. Of course, you get it back, and you go, “Well, the sound quality is great, but I really wish I’d had more time as a musician, and as a performer.” So, I was probably seventeen or eighteen when I started picking up mics, and I got a little Roland 18 track. It had faders, and a little LCD screen. I had that for a couple of years, and then was still lucky through all of this to get some recording sessions here and there, so I could still get into actual studios while I had my own thing at home.

So yeah. Playing drums really opened a lot of doors for me to get into studios. Then I was lucky enough, I had a home studio going here, I got to record a couple cool bands, I don’t know how long ago. The first full band that I recorded in here was Hank. Kind of a heavier group that was here in town. So I had recorded my friends’ bands, but that was my first “client” thing, and it went over great. We had a good time. Obviously I’ve learned and tweaked many things since then. Then I think I got my name floated around the recording community enough, and that was around the time that I was going to Pogo a lot, and I also kind of became good friends with Adam Schmidt. We were jamming some music together. He made some really cool records before I got into it. He recorded albums that I really thought sounded great. He did Shipwreck and Living Blue, and I played with Megan Johns, and he was working with Megan, so I got to see his set up. It was another one of those eye opening things were he had good gear but not like a ton of stuff, and I started to realize that this guy just had golden ears, and that’s just the name of the game. As you keep going, you start realizing that there’s just no replacement for experience. 

SP: How did you get shifts in Pogo?

JT: I knew Mark was really busy from teaching at Eastern. I would go in there and actually bring my own interface, and laptop, but just use his mics, and preamps, and room, and instruments. When he was making the move to Nashville, I think he just needed someone who had the know-how, and part of it was just being available. So yeah, he asked me to start running Pogo, and that was just a huge jump for me. It was all day everyday, trial by fire kind of thing, with legendary, amazing gear, and everything. The console in there was pretty unbelievable. It was great. Even though it sounded so good, and had amazing components, it was a late 60’s console that didn’t have a ton of options. So actually it was a pretty comfortable console. Since then I’ve gotten to work on more modern SSLs and Neves and stuff, and it’s like fifty times more complex. Now I have a grasp on that, but I think if I had jumped into something like that it would have just been overwhelming.

Anyways, so I got to work at Pogo for over a year or so. Not only was working with that kind of gear just so unbelievable, but you start learning a lot more about the real…I don’t know if I want to say “business” world, but just meeting client expectations. I’ve kind of prided myself on that. At Pogo, we had a lot of clients coming through the door, all of whom had worked with Mark. Mark has just a perfect reputation for not only being an amazing person, but working really hard and having an amazing studio. I think the clientele knew that I wasn’t Mark, and they were very kind, but at the same time I absolutely worked my tail off to maintain a certain level, and I’ve tried to just keep that going ever since.

SP: Sure.

JT: When Mark split town, obviously that shook things up around here. I was lucky, because I had become friends with Matt Talbot at Earth Analog.That’s another thing, too. I play in a group called The Dirty Feathers, and we’ve been lucky enough to play a handful of shows with Hum. They kind of took us under their wings. That got me talking with Talbot more and more. That was a really natural transition, because we share a lot of things, whether it be work ethic or flexibility or even just aesthetic. There’s a good crowd for that here, too. I feel like Matt has really bred a cool understanding. I mean just the name, “Earth Analog,” says a lot about the place.

But you know, just rollin’ tape, not just because it’s cool, but because it’s a work flow, it’s a mentality, kind of a group ethic thing. Anyways, that was a pretty natural progression. I love working in that room. So yeah, that’s pretty much it.

I’ve also gotten to do some sessions in Nashville as a drummer, and that’s been pretty eye opening, working with big league, grammy winner producer engineers. You can just see that there is a level of work and nuance and just experience that there is no substitute for. When you see it done by the best, all the gear in the world is great, but you realize that it’s the people in the room that are making these records. So I’ve carried that. That’s what I was saying about my little studio. This is my home base, and I love that I have my own little corner to call him, and to pull projects together as needed. I’ve done some albums that have been one hundred percent in this basement, and I’ve done some albums where I reference a mix that I did at Earth Analog. I might spend fifteen minutes on it, just signing off on it, you know. I think everyone needs their room. I know what a kick drum is supposed to sound like in this room, I know how a vocal is supposed to sit, and that my stereo spectrum needs to be doing these things. Whatever. That’s what this place is for me.

SP: Sure. It’s the “control” element in the experiment.

JT: My story is not that unique. I wanted to record, but I couldn’t get the time in the studios that I wanted, so I started doing it. All of this stuff has just started getting cheaper and cheaper. I mean, not any of this stuff. [laughs]. But that’s always been part of the fun. You oogle over this piece of gear, and you do some sessions, and you start to notice, oh, if I had this different piece of gear, I could start approaching what I hear on some major, amazing sounding release. That’s the benchmark, you know. That’s a big thing for me, personally, I don’t want there to ever be an excuse that, “This is good for Champaign, or for a small town.” We all have access to this gear. There is incredible in this town, too.

SP: Do you see a difference in the style of recording in Champaign versus Nashville?

JT: Yeah, but I don’t think there’s any excuse as to why we can’t deliver the same thing here.

SP: What do you see your role as an engineer? Is to capture a raw performance? Or is to create the best possible, almost theoretical, version of song, even if it could never be recreated live?

JT: That constantly changes. I try to go into a session knowing what my role is going to be. I am very touchy about it, but if someone is going to give me the “producer” responsibility, I take that very seriously. In the true producer sense, where you are calling the shots on things from work flow, to aesthetic style choices on every last piece, obviously the engineering know-how is a huge part of getting to those places faster. So if there is a session where I know I am going to be handed the reins for production, I am going to be prepared to be everything from a fly on the wall if things are running smoothly, because the last thing you want to do is get in the way; to knowing exactly how to push certain buttons to get things to where you know they want to go. I am pretty big on preproduction. If I have a band working on an album, I like to get together and talk about our goals, influences, and really run things down. I generally like to have them demo the full record for me, and then have another sit down to talk about where I would hear things sonically, stylistically. Maybe I feel a particular song would sound better without drums, or whatever. It’s good to cross those bridges early.

On the flip side, I’ve had sessions with like, really amazing groups that just play together a lot, and they really do just want to capture a very energetic vibe of them doing their thing. I still have a lot of choices to make. Mic techniques, usage of set ups and space, and those things. But those are things that are done before you hit record. In those situations, once you hit record, you are basically capturing 95% of what is going to be the finished product. I have a couple of those albums out there, where we went into it knowing that we were going for keeper takes, and that what you hear in the control room after your performance is probably just about the final mix.

That is a fun way to work, but I’m never one to say that one is better or worse. Some of my favorite records are the ones that were nitpicked over for years, others are more like one take in a room. That’s the beauty of it. Not to mention that level of production, but we are in an era where, as a producer, understanding genre choices is like a massive thing too. You want to let the artist express their vision. You are there to embellish it, or harness it in its best way to be delivered to the public.

I love those times when I get a session where I am full in on the audio engineer thing, and then there are other sessions where I know that things are going to be changed so wildly later that I am almost thinking five steps ahead, not so worried about what’s happening in that moment. It’s easy to undermine that, people always knock on modern production being totally crazy, but there’s a part of me that really loves that too.

SP: Taking a different run at that, from a philosophical perspective, do you see the highest version of a song as the actual performance, on stage? Is THAT the song? Or is it the recorded version, that you slaved over in the studio?

JT: I go back and forth on that, too. There are those performances, like some Muddy Waters, Chess Records recordings, where it was clearly just those guys in a room with a few mics, and it just sounds unbelievable. The power, and the passion, it’s pull-at-your-heart-strings music. It’s hard to listen to that and be like, “Well, that was good, but have you heard Steely Dan?” [laughs]. But on that same note, you go to a club, and watch hundreds of people go crazy for a Katy Perry song, where you know a billion tricks were used to make that happen, and it’s hard to argue against that either. It’s doing a magical thing that people come together over.

The important part is finding the magical component, and slapping people in the face with it. So if it’s some huge four on the floor club thing; or if it’s some in your face rap thing, with great lyrical content; or if it’s a rock thing, with over the top guitars, you have to be aware of what’s going to deliver the maximum impact to the listener. Sometimes that’s just a voice or a performance. Sometimes you hear the technical mistakes in the recording, and that’s part of the beauty of it.

I think it’s about understanding where that balance lies. Everyone kind of has their wheelhouse a little bit. More often than not, bands want the performance in there, and they want some of the polish, but you don’t want to jump over that imaginary wall, where it just sounds like you programmed a bunch of MIDI sequences, either. Most of us know when you are there. There’s always that level of refinement that’s like, “This is getting better and better and better,” and then there’s that time where you’re like, “Nah. Overcooked.”

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