Interview Kathleen WIRT – 4th Street Studio (USA) – October 2019
RecordingTheMasters happily sat down with Kathleen Wirt, who has owned and operated 4th Street Recording Studio in sunny Santa Monica, California for more than two decades. We asked her about her experience in the studio and how it has changed over the years, her thoughts on being a woman in a male-dominated industry and where she sees the future of 4th Street Recording and music recorded to analog tape.
Hi Kathleen, thank you for agreeing to sit down with us today, could you start by telling us a little bit about yourself? Are you from Santa Monica?
I am from Missouri originally but I have been here in Santa Monica longer than I should tell you. I’ve owned this studio since 1989 and have been the sole owner since 2001. I have a great crew here. I am not an engineer myself, but I have executive produced some records. I am generally not in the control room until the final mixes with a glass of champagne, saying: “That sounds good!”
I think the vibe is very important; there is a magic that happens when people get together in a room, and analog contributes to that magic, because it’s a very elemental thing. Every take is important – that’s why we used to have a slogan: “Adamantly Analog!” People will perform at the apex of their abilities. and that’s what my role has always been, to make people so comfortable and happy here that they feel wonderful because they feel wonderful they are better creators.
When you first started out here, what was the dominant method of recording? Was it still tape?
We used tape exclusively until at least until the mid 90’s. Even after Protools existed, rock and roll was always done on tape. People are often surprised to hear that we did not use Protools when we recorded Incubus’s S.C.I.E.N.C.E. Even though there were electronic elements in that album, the guys cut up the loops with a razor blade and taped them together.
I know that a long time ago we used AMPEX 456, which has been problematic. The substance on the back of the tape used to be made from a whale product, and when they stopped using that, they tried something else for awhile that didn’t last as long. So whenever we transfer tapes today, we get a lot of people saying “I bought this tape online for $50,” and they bring it in and you know, it’s no good. It gunks up the machine and takes a long time to clean, so we generally don’t even put it on. There are a lot of unscrupulous people selling tape online, so that’s one thing I would advise your readers; to not buy old used [reel] tape at this point. And the 456 pretty much started to go bad universally, so if you have tracks on old tape, you bake it. And I’ve been reluctant to take that responsibility on with people’s precious masters – I usually refer people to a place that bakes it.
Who are the engineers that work here? Are they analog veterans themselves or primarily ProTools Users?
I have one engineer/producer who does all my analog stuff. His name is Sejo Navajas, he’s only 38 years old and he’s phenomenally talented; he’s been doing this since he got here, 15 years ago. He does [get to record on analog] quite a bit, especially drums. Often times when someone is recording digitally they will record their drums to tape, and then dump them into ProTools. It really fattens up the drums, so it is a nice compromise. Chase McElhaney will usually assist -adjust the machine and get everything ready. Chase is a full engineer in his own right, but when we do an analog session often times he will work with Sejo.
It seems like a lot of 4th street’s success is derived from taking a chance on emerging artists, a large number of whom have been lucky enough to sign record deals after recording with your studio, is there a common characteristic amongst all the artists you scout and think are worth taking a chance on?
Back in the day, people would want to come in and not pay, come in “on spec”. Well I thought: “…if we are new we need to make a name for ourselves…”, but I didn’t want to just go with the people who came to us; I wanted to choose the projects. So I would go out to scout bands. I brought in Incubus, they brought in Hoobastank, Fiona Apple came in – we got a lot of bands their record deals, and would go on to make their records after that.
We know that traditionally, at least, the impression has been that much of the work in the music industries have been handled by men. Do you feel as though you’ve experienced things differently as a woman in the industry? Either positively or negatively? Would you recommend this kind of career to other young women?
Except for the female artists, in the past I was usually the only woman here; and the other woman who came in was usually used to being in the same position. Many of them were managing studios, working with the record label, or they were a manager, publicist, or Radio DJ. These women almost always became good friends and valued colleagues, but I remember a couple of times the other woman in the room was really mean to me and I’d just think: “What did they do to you to make you so mean?” But generally, I think we were considered civilizing influences. Historically, to get what we’ve wanted as women we’ve have had to compromise, so we have a management style that includes everybody, not forcing one way or another, but rather finding solutions that include everybody.
Nowadays I work with a lot of women who are on the business side of the business, and I would say from the middle management all on down I have actually been working with more women than men, and it’s surely only a matter of time until we are equally represented in the ivory towers too, it’s just a process.
The list of women who have worked here is just incredible, all the way from the early days with Fiona Apple, Gwen Stefani, and Nelly Furtado to more recently Ke$ha, Solange, and SZA.
I’m on the LA Committee for Women in Music, and we did an analog tape workshop here for female engineers with SoundGirls, taught by Lenise Bent, a producer who works exclusively on analog tape. More and more women are pursuing this career path. Women In Music; Sound Girls, Beats by Girls, She Said So, She Rocks — these are all organizations that are working with women and have programs for female engineers and producers.
Have you personally witnessed a difference in the engagement of the bands when recording on tape vs digital?
I think it certainly helps people appreciate the process of making music. Have you ever given someone your phone to take a picture and they take a burst and give you back 37 photos? That’s the digital world. When you are working analog, you are really careful about what you’re putting down, so people are really aware and perform better.
Building off the last question, do you feel like the process of making music has changed significantly from when analog methods were the primary recording method?
There’s always been a handful of people who didn’t really have talent, they just wanted to be famous. Those folks have always been around, but I would say that there are far fewer of them in Rock right now because the market has been favoring pop and hip hop, there hasn’t been as much profit in Rock. The result of that in my opinion is that everyone left in Rock seems to be phenomenally talented!
If you’re recording analog, you used to have to be able to sing. In Protools sessions, I have actually heard the artist say “I don’t want to sing the chorus again, just copy it and fly it in.” There’s an impression that all you have to do is press a magic button and, you know, it auto-tunes. I have to tell people, sometimes, that if you are so off-key, it will auto tune to the wrong note. And now people edit these files without even listening, just by looking at the files on the screen; which I’ve gotten used to now. There can be a haphazard thing to that too, thinking you know, “oh we can just fix that on the computer later”.
What has been the most challenging part of owning and operating a recording studio for all these years?
Paying the bills, baby. For many years we did only major label projects; but because we had gotten so many independent bands record deals; when the labels started to consolidate and let people go, we had the reputation as a good place for independent bands. So we have weathered all the changes in this business very well. But, I do miss those enormous paychecks.
The labels used to sign so many acts with a full production budget. We were doing records that were costing maybe $150,000 to make and that was a very low budget back then – people were spending millions of dollars to make a record. Now, I think they are signing smaller deals, where the label doesn’t pay for the production expense, which is great because you have more creative control but it also means the burden of expense is on you now.
There used to be 395 studios in LA, then in a two-year period it dropped to like 135, just boom. And I think it’s back up to almost 200, but a lot of those are just a room with a computer.
What are the biggest changes you have experienced being here as long as you have?
I was there for the whole meltdown of the recording industry, I was hearing about it before it was happening to us. It was when Napster was happening; and people were just downloading music for free. And of course the most recent thing where people are streaming it and not buying it at all. People still want to make music but they want to pay less and less to do so. I’ve seen all of it coming and felt all of it as it happened. But we continued; we lowered our rates, we worked faster. I don’t want to say we somehow survived. It was not “somehow”, it was because of our talents and our wits, and because everyone around here really does care.
I know that you are involved in 4th Street’s internship program, do any of the young people just starting out get any exposure to recording on tape?
Oh yeah, whenever there’s an analog recording session we sometimes allow more interns on than we should so they can understand and experience it. They get to shadow the person that is setting up. Generally time is of the essence so we don’t actually let them run it but they get to see it in person instead of just reading about it.
Do you have any other advice for young people today looking to start as sound producers or engineers?
I would say that there are a lot of fine schools that are expensive. I’ve worked with a lot of people in the early days that were self-taught. My advice is that if you can get in somewhere, like to work as an assistant to a producer or engineer, you can teach yourself; and to hook up with people who can show you how to do it.
I have a soft spot for people who really want to do it. I had this kid who wrote me this long, eloquent letter about how he wanted to be an engineer more than anything else in this world and about how it was his heart’s fondest desire. I wrote him back and told him that he touched my heart and that he could do it here, that I felt the same way. Then I stopped and added “I just thought I should mention that from what I’ve seen, it usually takes about six months before you get hired somewhere.” Then he responded and was like “Oh, never mind.” And I was thinking I had literally just told you that you could have your heart’s fondest desire if you could work six months for free. And that’s just the way it is, there’s so many people in this profession that it’s just about impossible to get in without an internship.
And I’d have to say our interns have wound up at all the top studios in town. Interscope has hired our people, we have former interns at Record Plant, Capitol – if you get in and you really care and you don’t want to do anything else and that’s all you want to do you will rise. We have a joke around here, because you know how people like to say “we run a tight ship?” Well I like to say we run a loose ship around here, because we can tell who is an idiot in the first 24 hours. The people who really want to be here will find stuff to do. You know we are all so busy that we don’t want to have to tell people what to do; we want them to think for themselves and then do it and it’s amazing how many people don’t get that. We had a girl here who was an intern here the summer before last one and she loved it so much she wasn’t going home so she rented out a garage floor for $600 a month. And once everybody realized those were the kind of sacrifices she was making they began to pull together for her and make more opportunities for her, like “She’s one of us.”
What do you think are some of the reasons behind the resurgence of analog today?
One reason that the quality of the sound is becoming more important today is that home theater systems are getting so big. Before, when you just had those tiny little TV speakers it didn’t really matter. But now you want the television’s sound quality to be just as good as it is in the movies, so I think we are going to have fewer people at home working on their keyboards and you’re going to have more people working with real bands, full orchestras, instruments, stuff like that etc.
When people make these comparisons [between digital emulations and analog sound] they all say “it sounds as good as analog” and I think that’s interesting because I think that means that analog is still the gold standard for sound, and everyone is trying to make it [digitally-produced sound] sound like that.
Well here, you know many young people don’t even conceptualize the difference between analog and digital, but once they hear [analog-recorded sound] for themselves they just know something sounds great.
Well you know, I had a kid here, a soldier that had come back from Iraq that knew one of our interns; and he sat here in one our control rooms, and he heard music that was recorded analog, and he sat here and cried, he said that he had never heard something that beautiful before, that he didn’t even know it was possible for music to sound like that. I get goosebumps when I say that; and it’s true you know; I actually run into a lot of people who say that all they’ve ever heard are the little headphones or whatever and they’ve never really heard it.
For your readers who are not technicians, the best way I ever heard it explained is that there are pixels with digital, and no matter how dense those pixels are, there is space between them. Film looks better, analog sounds better because you get the full sweep.
I agree fully, I couldn’t agree more with what you’re saying, and they need to come here to see that. They can’t discover it without listening to it
They say that Mozart makes your children smarter but an .mp3 of Mozart will not. It needs to be, you know; a higher resolution.
I would say also, oh my goodness; the lasting ability of tape — it is still the safest place to keep your music, because a hard drive will just crash and your tracks will be gone. I think that you will see a lot of archived music that was not on tape will just be lost. Because even if it was on a tape that was old, you can bake that tape, but you can’t bake a hard drive, it will just be lost, there’s a reason to maybe not digitize your files.