Interview: Jason Carmer
Donnas/Third Eye Blind Producer Jason Carmer Records Modern Hits with Vintage Sound
Jason Carmer & His Dog, Darla
(it helps to have a second set of ears)
We know each other socially, our paths have crossed several times but I was still a little nervous when I went to interview Jason Carmer, a record producer with 2 big records out this year, 3EB (Third Eye Blind’s) Out of the Vein and The Donnas’ Spend the Night. I drove to the studio he co-owns with 3EB singer Stephen Jenkins on the edge of San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood. Once the thriving heart of dot.com madness… I found a parking space right in front of the non-descript storefront.
I was promptly greeted by Carmer and his dog Darla and entered into a cozy and inviting, Moroccan inspired chill room, then moved down the hall to the main studio.
Carmer is one of those people who grew up in the business— his father was a professional musician. They moved around a lot, coast to coast. Carmer played guitar, played in bands, picking up engineering and producing chops thru experience, working with his own bands. He later attended the College of Recording Arts but you can tell, he’s someone who has learned by doing and trying, and experimenting. His approach in the studio is instinctive, intuitive, he ‘feels’ the board, he knows his gear by touch.
“I just kind of went from being in the studio recording records with the band I was in to being the guy doing the recording. My father was a musician. I was in the studio when I was 5. In the process of learning all this stuff and making my records for the bands I was in, I got used to being in the studio.”
One of the first things you notice when you enter the studio is the Helios board that he bought from a studio in Munich. It carries a better pedigree than Carmer’s dog. ‘This’ Helios board was in the Rolling Stone Remote for years and Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Bob Marley all recorded on it. Carmer is obsessed with the sound of classic rock recordings and believes that a lot of that comes from the gear. “The thing about Helios stuff, it’s one of the distinct sounds of classic rock. Neve is great. But Jimi Hendrix, the Who and the Stones recorded on Helios boards.”
The next thing you notice is the rack of Universal Audio gear: LA-2A, 2-610, two 1176s and an original 175 compressor. “The 175 is the most awesome, best compressor ever made. I think all my Universal gear sounds great, I’ve done total shootouts with them. Now, with the LA-2As, the new ones sound better to me. The 1176s, the old ones have a certain darkness but I like the new ones, they act the same. They sound killer, I love these things. Everything I have for a reason. There’s no dead weight around here. The 1176s are probably the best all around compressors, in my opinion. I use it on everything.”
Darla Likes the 2-610
“I just produced a song for Vanessa Carlton and the vocal always goes thru an 1176. Because it’s transparent, it reacts really well with the human voice. There’s nothing worse than crappy compression on a vocal. When you can ‘hear’ compression on a track, that’s the bottom of the barrel. I like to keep the vocal open and airy and I don’t like it to sound compressed but I also want it to be controlled. On all vocals I always use the 1176—anybody I’m working with, Vanessa, Stephen Jenkins (3EB), Run DMC, the Donnas. I always use the LA-2As on guitars. All the Donnas’ guitars went thru an 1176 and LA-2A.”
He got involved with 3EB during their second album. “I was producing a band called Black Lab for Geffen at a Studio in San Francisco called Toast (formerly Coast recorders, designed by Bill Putnam!). Third Eye Blind was recording their first record there and I think Stephen heard what I was doing and thought it sounded good. They were already doing the record with Eric Valentine and then we just kind of kept in touch. So then we did a song together for a cartoon. And ever since then we’ve been working together, that was about 1997.”
“Out of the Vein” was done entirely at the 3EB studio with the exception of the drums, which were tracked at Skywalker Sound. Carmer says that Skywalker is probably one of the best sound rooms he’s ever been in. “I’m fortunate, I’ve worked in a lot of studios, up and down both coasts and I like the more natural sounding, modern rooms. There’s a modern aesthetic in live rooms, which is really reflective—high, bright and really kind of scooped in and then a big bassy kick. Some people manage to design rooms like EQs on $100 boom boxes but I find that more neutral rooms allow you to focus more on the tonality of the instrument versus the overpowering sound of the room.”
“Out of the Vein” was tracked on Carmer’s customized Ampex 1200. It’s a 2” sixteen track machine but he’s modified it with a custom made eleven track head assembly, to give him some extra tape width. “I run the track thru a pre amp depending on what flavor or sonic quality I want, then I hit the tape machine with it. Once I build the track on tape then I transfer it into the computer and then I mix thru the Helios to 1/2 inch tape.
Why is he still recording to tape? “Analog just sounds better, They say you can do everything in Pro Tools but you take a Ricky Martin album that was made in Pro Tools and put it up against The Wall or Dark Side of the Moon and it just doesn’t sound as good.”
“I don’t compress anything with drums except for one mic. An ambient room mic like a U87 gives it some power. With Bass I use an LA-2a—I try different things. I don’t track with reverb. I like to try to suck the reverb out of the environment. I try to use early reflections. I don’t like fake sounds. I hate the sound of algorithms.”
“I think the best compressor is the vintage UA 175. It has the best sonic warmth. You can really drive it. Nothing warms up like that. I use it on guitar—you can get the biggest fattest coolest guitar sound ever. You can make a guitar sound very big, very fat, very warm whatever you put it thru it does that. I have $30,000 worth of compressors but nothing compares to the 175.”
When he’s forced by circumstance and location to record directly into the computer, Carmer has a trick. “If I ‘have to’ record straight to Pro Tools without hitting tape first, I run the guitar thru an LA-2A, not compressing, just setting the gain and the peak reduction. It really helps get rid of the unpleasantness that you get with guitars when you’re going to digital. When you go to digital with guitars, you have a problem with the high frequency. I find that just running it thru the LA-2A warms it up a bit.”
What’s next for Carmer? A move to New York in January. A new outlook. “I do feel that there has to be better music. Music can’t just be about making instant bucks. I’ve been really fortunate to work with a lot of established bands and it has been a great experience but I really want to focus on finding new talent.”
--Interview by Marsha Vdovin