In Profile: A Recording Engineer Unafraid To Take It To 11
"I like to run everything in the red. That's where it sounds good to me. It's rock'n'roll." -Jason Carmer
Mar. 08, 2011, by Keith May
Producer / Engineer Jason Carmer
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These words can raise the hairs on the back of a purist’s neck, but if it rocks, it rocks! Jason Carmer’s work on Third Eye Blind’s back-to-back, multi-platinum smashes (their eponymous debut and “Blue,” their follow-up album), and a Grammy-nominated release for Los Amigos Invisibles, have got the purists taking notes on some of Carmer’s techniques.
John Carmer (Jason’s dad) was a musician in New York City. As a result, Jason spent his early childhood in the Big Apple.
In 1967, everything changed. Elektra offered John Carmer a development deal and the Carmers moved to California to give it a shot.
At that time, Carmer was completely surrounded by music. He recalls “they were playing all the time.”
“I would wake up and hear my dad’s band playing. I’d be trying to sleep, and hearing my dad’s band playing.”
Unfortunately, the practice and the development deal didn’t lead to a record deal and John Carmer left the band.
Carmer’s parents split up, but the remaining members of the band stuck it out and became classic rockers Blue Oyster Cult. “Sometimes, I still can’t believe that he quit that band!” Carmer muses.
Carmer picked up guitar at age 8. By age 10, he was into punk rock. By age 15, he was “really into punk rock!” Carmer moved to DC with his mother when his parents separated.
Carmer played in a hardcore band called Double O. He recalls “our second gig, we were playing with the Dead Kennedys in front of 2000 people.” He also played in a seminal punk rock outfit known as the Meatmen.
A buddy of Carmer’s let him borrow “Raw Power”, by Iggy Pop. “My buddy said the record was the essence of everything punk rock. I listened to it and I thought it was horrible because it was so raw. Two days later I realized it was incredible because it was so raw!”
Iggy Pop’s unapologetic rawness inspired Carmer to get into the studio, but ultimately, it was the combination of the rush of performing in groups and being in the studio that led Carmer to decide to be an engineer.
He says “the whole do-it-yourself, punk attitude made me do it.” Carmer took this decision seriously, and started taking classes at the College of Recording Arts. He later dropped out.
“I know Ohm’s law and all that stuff; I learned all the basics at that school. I learned how to align a tape machine. I learned the differences between the patterns on microphones.”
After leaving the College of Recording Arts, Carmer started doing live sound and landed a tour with Consolidated, a hard hitting, take no prisoners, Bay Area rock band. On that tour he met Philip Steir, drummer and future co-owner of TOAST.
After touring with Consolidated, Carmer realized that doing live sound wasn’t the right fit for him. “It’s so loud!” he says. “Also, the touring thing is hard. I’m married. I’m into being domestic. Plus, I like to be involved in the creative process.”
“Live sound engineering is mostly reinforcing the sound that’s being created, whereas in the studio you’re building it from the ground up.”
One of the reasons Carmer enjoys working with Third Eye Blind so much is that they have similar ideas about how things should sound.
He comments, “they’re really patient and they’re really into experimenting and taking their time with mic positions and sounds.”
In addition to working with Third Eye Blind and Los Amigos Invisibles, Carmer has kept busy engineering/producing projects for Run DMC with Stephen Jenkins (Third Eye Blind’s lead singer, who appears on the single off the forthcoming Run DMC LP), Billy Idol, Live, Mark Eitzel, Black Lab, Black Eyed Peas and The Donnas. He’s also remixed singles for Live, Korn, Chumbawumba, The Butthole Surfers and the Tom Tom Club.
Aside from an impressive client list, what sets Carmer apart from many engineers is that some of his techniques don’t seem to make sense until you hear them. We know that Carmer loves running tracks in the red, but there’s a reason for it.
He explains “I don’t pay much attention to how it looks. It’s music! I listen to it. It’s important to learn about normal operating levels, but to me, many things sound better when they’re on the edge.”
He adds “Also, I love digital distortion! It’s an effect. Get a little digital distortion on a kick and snare and it’s slammin’!” This is rather ironic, given that Carmer stopped doing FOH because it was too loud.
Keeping his mixes on the edge is not all that Carmer doesn’t do by the book. He says “they’re so many great mics out there that you feel obligated to use a U47 as an overhead.”
Carmer acknowledges you can get great sounds that way, but too much of a good thing can detract from the overall sound quality.
He explains “there have been times when I’ve set up 14 mics on a drum kit. But, by nature this introduces phase problems. If you feature one mic and supplement its sound with just a few others you get a purer sound.”
To reinforce that point, Carmer has been experimenting with different mics and more minimalistic setups. He explains “what I’ve been into lately is trying to center the sound of an instrument, particularly drums, around one mic. A lot of times the mic I dig is a (Shure) 57. I’ve been getting some great drum sounds that way.”
“I mess around with different amounts of compression to get the right amount of drive while still letting it breathe. But to me, a properly compressed 57 sounds great as a room mic.”
Carmer firmly believes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Blending tracks in a mix is a very delicate business. He explains, “a lot of things sound terrible by themselves but wonderful in the mix.”
“It’s like eating salt. It doesn’t really taste good if you eat it by itself; you need to mix it in carefully. I like to have some elements that are raw and nasty and mix them in with other more refined elements.”
In spite of the fact that Carmer has punk rock roots and an impressive list of rock credentials, he’s not limited to that genre. He recently completed a jazz record with Will Bernard.
He remarks “there’s hardly any compression on it. We went for a late ‘60s Miles Davis vibe. We treated it as a live performance where it was okay to hear people cough and if somebody hit a blue note. It was very open.”
Carmer loves his role as an engineer/producer because of the opportunities for creative involvement. Nonetheless, he feels his job is to serve the music and he doesn’t take it lightly.
Carmer says, “if I’m working with an artist that I think is going to be on the radio I will try to maximize that, but I really try to zoom in on the crucial aspects of the medium in which the music is going to be heard.”
On a side note, Carmer has been doing some recording with a new, as yet unnamed, band with Joe Gore, Erica Garcia (Universal) and Joey Waronker (drummer for REM and Beck). Carmer says “Joey has a 16’ x 20’ room at his place and a couple of funky organs.
Joe and I brought some pedal boards and our laptops with Reactor and ProTools and some samples and loops.” In a voice full of joy he says “We’ve been working on some recordings which is fun! I spend so much time recording other people’s music that it’s fun to be the one who’s playing out of time and out of tune.”
Of his experiences he says “I get to work at all these great studios, but sometimes it’s great to just sit on somebody’s smelly couch.”