PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN: Fluency on the tuba is not at the top of Dan Romer’s resume, but dig deeply enough into his profile and you’ll find he’s got it down. That, and a number of other interconnecting abilities that make this Brooklyn-based producer/songwriter/mixer/arranger a man in demand.
The diverse skill set on musical instruments – Romer can hit the stage on accordion, guitar, Mellotron, drum machines and percussion, in addition to tuba – reflects his agility in his Park Slope studio, home of Drawing Number One Productions. There, he’s tracked, mixed and collaborated with songwriters that are stepping up and out, scoring big with singles and synch licensing: a list that includes Ingrid Michealson, Jenny Owen Youngs, Ian Axel, and April Smith, among others.
Meanwhile, his work with Lelia Broussard has been a big part of the smart songstresses’ fast and recent rise. One of two finalists in Rolling Stone’s “Do You Wanna Be a Rock Star?” competition, Broussard has gone deep into the contest armed with the arresting album Masquerade that Romer produced. Equal parts sage, savage and sweet, Masquerade is a record real enough to cut right through the clutter — precisely why you should expect to see Broussard on the cover of Rolling Stone this August.
Smoking a cigarette on the stoop while his latest charge, Cara Salimando, looked through lyrics inside Drawing Number One, Romer made it clear that production, songwriting, engineering and raw musical instinct can successfully intersect.
On your Website, you seem pretty uninterested in making a big deal out of your studio, gear or the tools that you use. Why is that?
The most obvious answer is, I don’t really think it’s about the gear. It’s about the work. I don’t use the most expensive equipment in the world. I personally feel the way that home recording works is: If you’re not going to be doing drums at your place, really what you need more than anything else is a good-sounding space and a really good stereo chain.
I use a mic that I love, a preamp that I love, HD converters, and that kind of chain is something you’d see in a super professional recording studio.
What mic and pre is that specifically?
The mic is a Pearlman TM 1. It’s hand-built by a guy named Dave Pearlman in L.A. He’s a total sweetheart — I’ve left my mic on too long and blown out the tubes, and he’s sent out new ones right away. It’s in the U 47 vein. If I can, I prefer to go with mics where actual people are building them — you get more attention from them.
The mic pre is the Portico 5012. It’s a somewhat mellow preamp. I like getting the sound super-aggressive at the source, and then using my pres to mellow it out. The Portico, when you press down the “Silk” button, it makes more use of the transformers. When you’re recording something like percussion, you can hit it and it calms it down a little bit. It’s like having two preamps in one — it’s a fantastic feature.
What are the spaces you have available to you in your home studio?
I have closet that I turned into a vocal booth. I padded every wall down with fiberglass, put a rug down, and left the ceiling open so I could have one reflection. I also have a humongous basement. What I did there is got a bunch of packing blankets and killed reflections until I had no slapback, then left it at that. So it’s as natural as possible.
When I record drum sounds there, I set up room mics near the heating ducts and get a whole lot of sustain. But I prefer a jagged live room with no slapback to a very well-treated wood panel room.
You seem to get along with some determined female singer/songwriters. In addition to Lelia Broussard, I see on your discography Ingrid Michaelson, Jenny Owen Youngs, Bess Rogers, for starters. What’s their appeal to you as clients, and why do they seem to like you back?
When you’re in high school, it’s very common for guys to be in hardcore, punk and rock bands, and very common for girls to be playing an instrument and singing alone unaccompanied. That has nothing to do with abilities or mindframe of either gender, it has to do with where society pushes them.
So when I got to college at SUNY Purchase, the situation there was that the guys had been playing with bands since they were 14 or 15 years old, while many of the female singer/songwriters had very little experience in bands. SUNY Purchase has some pretty distinguished alumni by the way — Regina Spektor, Moby, Langhorne Slim, Dan Deacon, Jenny Owen Youngs, the Presidents of the United States of America. It’s a left-of-center pop music school.
Jenny Owen Youngs and I were really close friends in college. I had never produced a record before, but I somehow convinced her that I knew how to do that! She allowed me to record her first album, which she released independently and then got picked up by Nettwerk unchanged — they kept my mixes and the mastering.
More often than not, I’ve noticed guys have full bands that they’re already in, in which all the band members have artistic and financial stake, while it’s a lot more common for ladies to be solo artists. So it gives me an opportunity while working with them to put a band together and get the sound with them, rather than working with the sound that already exists between a bunch of people. Plus, the artists I’ve worked with that people know the best are Jenny Owen Youngs and Ingrid Michaelson. So I get inquiries from mostly female artists.
Beyond simply being a producer/engineer, you also collaborate with many of these artists as a songwriter. How does that work out?
I think being available as a co-songwriter as well introduces a specialness to the project. Instead of you [the artist] coming in with songs and just having them recorded, you’re making a whole new baby. It becomes a whole different project that couldn’t have happened otherwise.
When I’m writing with an artist, I try to get them out of their box. For instance with Cara Salimando, it’s a case of me saying, “You’ve written a lot of beautiful down tempo songs. Now let’s write some punk songs.” So when I sit down and start playing a guitar part unlike anything they’ve ever used, it’s an exciting place – ideas they’ve never tried before take them out of their comfort zone.
With an artist, I look at their top four or five songs they’re showing on the Internet. I’ll say, “What’s the same among all these songs?” Rhythms, chord progressions? Do they never use a two-chord? Or do they always change their chords on the down beat, or only have offbeat chord progressions? When I’m arranging, I’ll say, “What if we slow this song by 20 BPM? What happens if we don’t have the guitar, what if it’s just drums, bass and long piano chords?”
I try to get them going in another direction, not because what they’re doing isn’t great, but to get them out of their comfort zone so they get some ideas they haven’t thought of before.