Ian Pellicci @ Tiny Telephone
Interview conducted by Holden Way-Williams, Christan Cunningham and Ben Van Houten.

Ian and Jay Pellicci, San Francisco recording engineers and brothers, have worked on tons of great local projects including Deerhoof’s latest album Offend Maggie. We were interested in what they do as engineers, how they got started, and their upcoming projects. We got a chance to ask them about all of these things in an interview a couple weeks ago at The Bay Bridged Studio. This is the first of two parts to this interview. The second half will be posted next week. This interview has been edited for length.

[audio:https://www.thebaybridged.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/chandelier-searchlight-1.mp3] Deerhoof – “Chandelier Searchlight”

IP: I’m Ian Pellicci, I work at a studio, I do live sound and I got a day job too.

JP: I’m Jay Pellicci and I work at a studio also, I don’t do live sound, and I got a day job also, on occasion. Oh yeah, I play in a band called 31Knots, from Portland. I’ve played with Okay in the past.

TBB: What exactly do you do, as recording engineers?

IP: Typically, we just try to fill a roll that’s just more behind the scenes I guess, you know, just invisible, to a certain, or large degree, but I guess since it is recording and since there are a lot of choices you could make in the process there is invariably just definitely some sort of influence that you have on how everything comes out. Essentially recording and mixing music… I’m sorry I just went on a major tangent. I probably won’t even answer your question.

JP: Well you know, what you were saying about trying to be invisible, but as far as recording goes, there’s different engineers who try to take a different approach, Ian and I usually try to stay out of the way, just assuming that bands have a clear idea of what they want and leave a lot of the decisions up to them unless they ask for an opinion or something like that. But then there’s other engineers who will take a huge roll, acting like a producer saying something like, “You should do this part again”—

IP: Or “This song feels like it’s lacking this element” or something or “Maybe it needs this other melody” or “It needs to be extended or shortened” or something like that. Those can all be roles that you feel as a recording engineer, producer, mixer.

JP: Basically you get a band that comes in and if they want to record songs you set up a bunch of microphones and then say role and try to get them to feel comfortable and play some songs and at the end of the day you kind of balance out levels and make it sound like a song.

TBB: when a band asks you to help them out, do you prefer that to just the stricter recording?

IP: I have recently been really enjoying the more hands on side, giving creative input to the material as well as the actual sound production of it. I’ve really been getting into that.

JP: I like to have a little bit of input, but nothing totally domineering or anything like that, just enough so I can say “Hey, what would you guys think if we tried this.” And it’s never really a clear role that’s defined, some people just expect you to give your opinion, and some people don’t really want to hear an opinion from you, and there’s everything in between. A large part of it is reading into where your boundaries are with a particular band. Is it cool if I tell them that they’re singing out of tune? Or should I let them manage themselves?

TBB: Is that something that took a while to figure out, the people management, people interaction stuff, and figuring out; when am I over stepping stuff or when should I say something? How did you learn how to judge the relationship and figure out how to appropriately proceed?

IP: Well our social skills needed a considerable amount of work when we first started.

JP: From interviews and things we had read, it seemed like it was completely up to the band to do everything and that engineers should keep their hands out of it. It took me a while to learn when to say simple things that will save time down the road. Like when something’s being recorded and you know it’s going to be a problem, but you don’t say anything, and then later on when you’re mixing and they say “Hey this is out of tune!” and you say “Yeah… I should have said something about that.”

TBB: How did you’re being brothers help you get you where you are today, professionally. Did you ever build off of each other with ideas and help each other learn, if at all?

JP: That’s totally how we learned. We were both interning at this place called The Music Annex, and I don’t know what their inter program is now, but in 96’, if I remember correctly, they would make you intern a minimum of fifteen hours a week, but for every five hours of interning you did you would get an hour of studio time. Of course it was bump-able, so if you marked your name in, but somebody was already going to pay for that time, you would get the boot.

IP: Yeah, you would show up at the studio; go across the bay then somebody would be in the studio and be like, “oh yeah you’re not in here anymore…”

JP: One time that happened to us, and we were bumped out by MC Hammer. Every other time was kind of annoying, but that time it was pretty awesome. Like, well, we just got bumped out by MC Hammer! We were lucky because we had a band at the time that we were playing in together. We would try to go there sometimes and record ourselves playing dumb songs. Even just Ian and I would go on some days and try to get a good kick drum sound and try all these different mics. We lucked out in that we had this pretty generous internship program compared to other places. On top of that they also had really good equipment. I think it was back when they were on Pro Tools 3. They had that, but what we were really into at the time was recording onto two-inch tape. They had two Studers, 827’s, like the fanciest ones they made, they had a nice vintage Neve console, and tons of great microphones and compressors. So we were able to just go to town.

TBB: So was it being in a band that got you guys interested in recording? What was the initial spark that got you guys interested in the program?

IP: Well Jay actually got me into it. I don’t know why you wanted to do it but…

JP: Well when we were teenagers and first got our instruments, we would always want to record ourselves just to see what it would sound like. We would have this shitty boom box and put a cassette in and hit record. And you know, everything is going to sound distorted and fucked-up sounding. So we said, “Huh, well maybe we can put a blanket over it, or put this across the room to make it not so distorted so we can kind of hear what’s going on.” Eventually I think our dad got some old Beta copy of Sound Forge, and so we had that, and our dad’s friend had a little project studio and he had an old reel-to-reel four-track, it’s like a quarter inch one. It actually still sounds great. So he let us borrow it.

IP: He let us “rent” it, for twenty dollars a month. Ooh.

JP: So between me, Ian, and our old high school friend, Marty, from Okay, the three of us pulled our money together and got a Mackie 1202 mixer, and a SM57, so we record ourselves that way. And over a couple years we thought, yeah this sounds like something we kind of want to do for a living. And that’s how we learned, everything we learned was from just trying stuff on our own and reading magazines and everything.

[audio:https://www.thebaybridged.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/okaybeast.mp3] Okay – “Beast”

IP: And a lot of it can’t be learned, in that short of a period, because it’s training your ear to hear what a compressor is doing, for example, or hearing the subtleties of that.

JP: It’s like trying to take pictures and reading as much as you can read about learning how to take a picture, once you go and start doing all the stuff, there’s the whole experience side of things that you basically just need to have.

IP: Since Jay finished recording school and he started interning at that place, The Music Annex, and at the time I had no interest at all in recording, I didn’t even realize it was a career. Jay and Marty convinced me to start the interning program because, for some reason, they only allowed interns to record other interns. So they said, “Okay, you gotta record here so we can record ourselves. So funny enough, I started doing that just to play. I just did that so we could record ourselves. And eventually, it turned into being something that was really fun.

TBB: One thing I’m curious about is the rise of home recording. How has that impacted the studio recording experience?

IP: I would really like to be able to say that it improves the overall experience but in lots of cases, doing things in the studio is still so foreign compared to the home recording situation that most people have; having an Mbox, recording two tracks at once or something as opposed to having a full band going, or this and that and being able to have all the time in the world to really do take after take, or do edits of things and make the song or the recording. Overall, it makes it more difficult because they do feel like they have some sort of experience that allows them to take charge, or if not take charge then to assert technical advice, like, “Oh at home this is what I do,” sometimes its really helpful because it helps you understand how they work or what they’re used to so you can say, “Oh this is how you work so would it help if we did it this particular way?” In other cases it just becomes a total speed bump in the session.

JP: I actually haven’t had that experience, that being a total speed bump.

IP: Well also lots of people record things in the studio and then mix it all at home by themselves.

JP: I think that the thing that stands out the most to me is not so much the process of like, setting up microphones, and doing things this way or that way, until you cross the barrier where, like, if band goes into a studio and actual wants to record on two-inch tape when they’re used to recording on Pro Tools the whole time. A lot of bands that come in now are like, “Oh we can only record on this tape once right?” Or we can only do this or that, and all these crazy things that are totally untrue about recording. It seems like people kind of view it as like recording on a wax cylinder or something where you got one shot at it and you can’t really do any edits or fixes and you’re kind of just stuck. So it gets to the point where I have to assure a lot of people and say, “Oh no, no, you can record as many times as you want on it, it’s totally fine. We can punch you in and do this fix here.” And you know, you can’t do like five syllables from fifteen other takes like you can on Pro Tools, but you can fix some lines or like a guitar part; a couple guitar notes, a couple drum beats. It’s that sort of thing.

IP: And records were made this way for the past fifty or sixty years, and still, less frequently, but to this day. So there are really not that many limitations to it.

JP: Actually, I was just working with this band and they were totally into doing it on two-inch tape, and they had done their last record on Pro Tools. They were totally fine with knowing they couldn’t auto-tune and stuff, which I don’t think they did on their last record too much, if at all. But it wasn’t like, “Let’s just move this one beat that’s annoying us.” Instead it was like, “Well, can we live with it? Or should we just redo the whole take?”

TBB: Did you guys learn to record on tape first, and then to digital?

IP & JP: Yeah

TBB: Is tape your preferred method of recording?

IP & JP: Yeah

TBB: Is it audio or technical, or what makes it your preference?

IP: It’s easier, it’s cheaper, it’s faster set-up time, at least.

JP: I think tape sounds better. I mean, there’s tons of different tape machines, and if you have a good tape machine and it’s working right, it’ll sound totally amazing. Also, bands are getting lazier and lazier, as far as performance-wise. They still might take the time and put a lot of effort and write a great song, but so many bands are used being able to say, “Oh lets just move this beat, oh that’s a little out of time lets cut that, drag it over, and now it’s not behind a beat, and now you’re not rushing.”

IP: Well also, there’s an obvious limitation as far as being able too…in the case of something like drums or something like that, you’d have one take and say that’s good enough, or if you think you can do better, you can try redoing it but if you don’t do it better than you know, that’s the risk. It forces bands to be decisive and just commit to an idea, or instead of doing everything after the fact, like weeding through the twenty different takes of a performance.

JP: Especially vocals. I understand that people want to do vocal takes, but it totally gets out of hand so quickly. The next thing you know you have twenty or thirty or forty vocal takes. At what point do you go back and listen to it? And how many takes can you listen to before any sort of objectivity is totally lost.

IP: And from a time stand point, in a session you don’t have time to write down notes on every take and say, “Oh this is a good take,” or whatever. I’ve heard a few engineers say they just pick the one that they like and just tell the bands that it’s the ones that they asked for. And they never say anything about it.