John Goodmanson on Recording Bass, Picking References, Landing Repeat Clients & Producing in the Pacific Northwest

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John Goodmanson in the studio.

John Goodmanson is a producer, engineer and mixer who has made his name working with critically-acclaimed artists like Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead, Pavement, Blondie and Nada Surf.

Although he’s best known for his work in the indie rock world, this Pacific Northwest-based producer has made occasional forays into other genres as well, most notably with Wu-Tang Clan.

Most recently, Goodmanson has produced and mixed Wolf Parade’s latest LP, Cry Cry Cry, out now on Sub Pop Records. I tracked him down to ask him all about his process and approach.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience working on the new Wolf Parade LP?

We did basics and mixed at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle. I’ve done [many] projects there, from The Blood Brothers to Brandi Carlile. It’s a big tracking room, but it’s also an SSL room that works well for me for mixing.

There are a number of acoustic spaces in Studio A and we were able to isolate the grand piano for the live takes so that piano rhythm parts could be tracked with the band. [That] made a huge difference for the record, since Spencer [Krug]’s songs tend to be written at the keyboard. He’s an excellent player.

A view of Robert Lang Studios in Seattle, where Goodmanson recorded and mixed Wolf Parade’s latest release, Cry Cry Cry.

There’s also an interesting reverb chamber right off of the control room where we put the guitar amps. We tracked room mics with the guitars and wound up using them quite heavily in the mix.

I tend to set most bands up that way at Robert Lang’s, since there is the space to do it, but I think I wound up keeping the live takes and overdubbing less on this record than I do on a more typical rock production.

What about the overdubs and mixing—you did some of that in Canada?

Overdubs were done at a studio called Noise Floor in [British Columbia]. It was a bit more rustic, but super fun. Way out in the woods, but with plenty of interesting gear to mess with. It was really nice to get a change of scenery halfway through. We also had a break in between sessions over the holidays and were able to come back with a list of what we needed to get done.

Mixing was back at Robert Lang’s in Seattle. The band came down for the mix and we were able to knock it out without too much fuss. I tend to track the sounds cooked like they will be in the final mix, so in an ideal world the mix is just about making it sound great and doesn’t involve too much head-scratching.

You’ve done repeat mixing and producing jobs for bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney, Blonde Redhead, Nada Surf. Can you share any insight into how engineers and producers can build strong relationships with bands, get repeat work, and grow with a band over the course of their career?

Always remember it’s the band’s record—not yours. It’s your job to facilitate their vision and highlight their strengths. I get to make lots of records. Each band gets to make one every one or two years at best.

[That’s] not to say a band doesn’t need to be told when something isn’t working, or when they are fighting against their own interests or fighting against the song. Bands can get lost during the writing and recording process. But dang, respect a band’s individuality and value the creation of a work of art. It’s so not about you.

Good advice. Getting a little more more in-depth, you’ve gottem some really great bass sounds. How do you usually record bass guitar?

Bass guitar is the most difficult rock instrument to record. The player, the instrument, the amp, and the monitoring environment all have a huge impact on the recording and your perception of it. Physics is a beast and there is no getting around it. Then room and speakers are going to mess with the low end. Be sure and check the bass and the low end in headphones. If you don’t trust the room, wait to process the bass in the mix.

Remember, you don’t have to do anything to it. Sometimes it’s easy to mess with the bass too much. If it’s a good player with a good instrument you can take all the processing away and the sound opens up and gets bigger.

John Goodmanson.

I usually record an amp signal and a separate DI, but I most often only use the DI in extreme emergencies. If all else fails I can re-amp the bass or use a virtual amp plug in to tune the bass sound in the context of the full track.

It can be tricky because often, the bass goes down with the drums as one of the first instruments recorded. This is the big guitar and fuzz bass problem: You think you’ve got the fuzziest bass sound ever, and then you get the guitars built and they cover it up completely and it sounds like a normal bass again. If you re-amp the bass after you record guitars, you can adjust the amp so that it cuts through the guitar wall.

Another solution is to record a separate amp for the fuzzy part of the bass sound and edit it on and off when it’s appropriate. You can use a little amp like a [Fender] Champ or something, because it’s meant to be combined with the low end of the main bass sound.

Another fun fact: When you’re working with a bassist using a fuzz pedal in sections of a song, often the pedal will flip the polarity of the signal and cause the low end to cancel out if you’re taking more than one source for your bass sound. Always check the polarity of all the bass signals. It gets complicated fast.

A great trick I tend to break out when desperate is to compress the bass before it goes to the amp. You can also plug the bassist straight in to a channel strip and then send them line level out to a re-amp and in to the bass rig. Then you’ve got options galore for EQ and compression before you ever hit the amp. This works really well when the bassist’s technique or instrument is lacking and you’re having a hard time making the bassline read in the track.

What’s your standard setup in the control room?

At home I’m working on Pro Tools 12 with a UAD Apollo as well as a UAD 2 quad card. I have preamps, compressors and a few favorite pieces of outboard for overdubbing. I also have lots of guitars, amps, pedals and keyboards. Having instruments around is way more valuable than having tons of studio gear. I would say it’s not ideal to work at your house, but right now it suits my family schedule.

[When I’m working outside the home] I’ll pick a studio based on performance spaces and maintenance. I can bring my gear, but you can’t change the room too much. Bad maintenance will slow you down and frustrate everyone.

I’ll consider tracking to tape if the studio has a machine that they are proud of. Otherwise, maintenance these days can be dodgy and even the tape manufacturing is questionable. So, most often I’m tracking the basics at a studio in to Pro Tools HD and taking it back to my house for overdubs.

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