Albatross Studio's Mike Wisti: Young people don't want to record Tusk or Sgt. Pepper's

Albatross Studio's Mike Wisti: Young people don't want to record Tusk or Sgt. Pepper's
Photo by Dave Hoenack

In our ongoing series Behind the Boards, Gimme Noise explores the backbone of the Twin Cities' vibrant music scene by visiting recording studios and getting to know the engineers who capture its ten thousand sounds. This month we're visiting a studio that never abandoned analog recording, placing it at a crossroads between digital media and the extraordinary revival of vinyl LPs.

Mike Wisti's Albatross Studio has been underground for nearly two decades. Literally underground in Wisti's basement, the studio has no website, no Facebook page. It is not quickly or easily found -- but then again, not so hard to find. One can trace a thread between the bands that introduce one another to the studio, so that along the lines of "six degrees of separation" one can trace seminal records from the '90s recorded by Wisti to a myriad of recent projects, ranging from Skoal Kodiak to Grant Hart's forthcoming epic interpretation of Paradise Lost, and Southside Desire, who had just finished a new track when we arrive. Wisti plays it for us, and we are as hypnotized by the turning reels as we are by singer Marvel Devitt.

Mike Wisti: We don't track or record digitally, or use ProTools. We don't track to this and then this and mix them together. This is a 24 track [Gesturing to the tape machines behind his chair], and this is an 8 track. It's a great-sounding older machine, late-'70s. The 24 track is a little newer, early or mid-'80s, but everything ends up mixed on two tracks here [The machine playing Southside Desire's new song].

Gimme Noise: In one of the last interviews you gave was in a feature about the resurgence of vinyl. Does it make sense to record digitally and then press an album?

Well if your source is digital or tape, once it hits vinyl the sound changes, generally for the better. For some people the format issue is not about sound, it's more tactile, although for me the issue is almost entirely about the sound. I like those esoteric aspects -- the large artwork, the tactile notion of a record versus the ambiguous nature of ones and zeros -- but I prefer the more expanded sound.

[The resurgence of vinyl] hasn't been great in terms of furthering the cause of good-sounding music. There's a little bit of liking the better format for the wrong reasons, because the music inside is still the most important thing.

I think a good-sounding CD now is kind of a boutique item, which is funny because fifteen years ago they were the thing and vinyl was the boutique, specialty item. With the general lowered standard of the quality of recorded music, a good-sounding CD is a rare thing.

As far as records, I never stopped recording things here that went to vinyl, but more records have been made here in the past five years than in the previous ten.

I know there are a lot of people who only listen to downloads and mp3s and stuff. To me its great if you listen to digital radio and find something you don't know but think it's cool. That's a gateway, in my mind. That's not the real thing. That's not what it is. What you're hearing is... like someone has left you a note to check your messages.

If you're going to record in what I'd consider a questionable environment - an affordable digital recording, say - and then press it on vinyl, the record is better than listening to an mp3 of it, but there's still a hollowness to it, a lack of resonance. There's not much there there.

Is anyone specifically marketing their album as an analog recording, the way digital recordings were first advertised as superior?

I've already seen it. The band that recorded here that was most concerned about it, although I don't know if was described that way on their record jackets, was Mother of Fire. Those records never went digital. We tracked them to this [the 8 track machine] and mixed them to the two track. They bought new master tapes and those were what were sent to the pressing plant. Their record never went digital.

I'm not that much of a purist. Just because you do something all analog, that doesn't mean its great. You can make a bad record anywhere.

Besides, isn't the debate about format over? Most studios aren't recording on tape anymore. Most people don't care. I don't think the Rolling Stones care about format. They made great-sounding records in the late 60s and early 70s because great studios happened to be making great recordings at that time. I bet with they go into the studio now they record digitally, because that's the newest thing. I'm guessing they just go with whatever is the newest.

It's interesting. What's so great about Kraftwerk? The thing that's awesome about those records is that they're struggling with the analog format. With digital recording it would be easy to make those records. They were trying to create this perfect electronic, sterile, icy kind of music, that ironically sounds great on tape. There's an argument that that's where digital recording and Protools has a place.

But for anything folky, acoustic, or organic, it breaks my heart. It's sad, but [digital recording] is what's available.

The way you talk about recording suggests there's more than a format difference between Albatross and a more commercially-minded studio.

Well, having done this for a long time, and having recorded when I was young, I've learned that anything you do that harms to overall feeling of the recording session in the name of better sound make the sound worse.

I don't believe in getting "drum sound," which is of course a bit of a misnomer. I think the drummer should come in and set up and I'll set up some mics and we'll start working. Now there's people who'll say, "The drummer is going to wear headphones and we're going to have a click track and we're going to have isolation, and we're going to band on the snare drum for an hour and tune it up. Then we'll put a mic on bottom and a mic on top and swing it at a forty-five degree angle." Blah, blah, blah. That could be fantastic but for the most part when a band records here we don't get "sounds." They set up and play and see what it sounds like.

When a band is younger, they're more restless and anxious. Older bands have a little more patience and they understand - they've made a two-day record or a three-day record. Young people don't want to record Tusk or Sgt. Pepper's, they wanna do it.

And it can really break the spirit of the band if the sound guy is asking the drummer to bang on a snare drum for an hour, and then he says, "No no, this snare's not right," while everybody's out back smoking.

It's got to sound good, true. But if you're looking for things that aren't perfect you'll always find something. So what do you do? Do you hold up every one until every little thing is perfect? By the time you're there it's time to go home, or everyone's bummed out. You've got to balance the emotional side of recording with the technical side.

I've got a good microphone in there, a good preamp, a good compressor, but the most important thing for a vocalist is that they feel good about what they're doing, not some technical issue.

Now some people want a more carefully controlled recording and they're up for that pacing. Here, it's like you're driving to Madison. You're up for that drive and you set off with your friends. But what if halfway there somebody in the car says, "Hey, let's go to Chicago." Now you're bummed out. If making a record is like a car trip, you want everyone to be aware what the expectations are.

You can make an awesome rock record in two days, or you can also make an awesome rock record in six months.

So bands set right up and get to work here?

A lot of that set-up time can be used as acclimation. Probably before that if they're a band that I don't know, I've gone to see them play. It's great to see a band play live - it's also a great excuse to see a good band. I find it really useful to be introduced to someone in their element.

Instead of here in your element?

But I'm not sure I have an element.

But this is your element.

Its my element in as much as it allows people to work into what they're doing. A lot of the bands that have recorded here, there's a tremendous commitment to what they're doing. They're not doing it to create a product so they can sell it and become financially successful. They're doing it to achieve some not-entirely-clear artistic goal. They've written songs and they're in a band and they want to do something that they feel good about. If they can sell a hundred copies to people who come out to their shows, all the better. They're not doing it for money. I respect that. A lot of recording settings aren't sympathetic. This is not that kind of environment. It's art for art's sake.

Does the conflict over format come into that?

I've been working with Grant Hart on this epic double record [The Argument] that's coming out soon, and we were going to mix that in Germany. He does well over there and had some contacts. His European distributor has this big studio where we could get time, so Grant wanted to up the ante. He put me in touch with the guy that runs the studio there so we could get started, and he seemed nice enough. He asked what I would need, and I think we were going to have to mix to digital. I was willing to try.

I said it would be cool if we could get a couple nice tube compressors, a tape echo, and maybe a plate reverb or a spring reverb. And his response was, "We believe in ideas and people, and we don't need any of your elitist analog gear." It was insane. I'm trying to hang on here in my basement recording scrappy punk rock, and this guy who runs a studio in Germany is accusing me of being an elitist because I want a tape echo and I didn't want to use a computer.

He pictured me polishing the knobs on my Studer tape machine. I have some nice stuff here, but this is a working studio. This is not an elitist institution at all.

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