Tears of Our Tracks: An interview with Mark Trombino
We talk to prominent producer and engineer Mark Trombino, the man behind records from blink-182, Jimmy Eat World, and Mineral.
Often times, we don’t fully appreciate what goes into the music we listen to; it’s not easy creating an album’s worth of music. Records are released all the time, but making one takes time and energy. Making a record that reaches out to the listeners, that takes heart.
Mark Trombino is a producer, mixer, and engineer of albums. He puts all he believes into his work, and the results can be seen in the vast amount of work he has done. From Jimmy Eat World to Mineral, to recent fan favorites the Starting Line, Mark Trombino is constantly working. He took time out of his very busy schedule to talk to me; it showed me just what kind of person he is and being a fan of the albums Mark has worked on, growing up on the sounds that he has helped create, it was an incredible experience.
Mark, you produce and mix albums. Can you explain to the readers, what this actually consists of?
Trombino: Well, I’ll tackle the easy one first. A mixer is the person who, after everything has been recorded, takes all that material and adjusts the balances between them and basically finishes the recording process. They may get a tape with 24 tracks on it, with the bass drum on one track, a bass on another, guitars and vocals on others as well, and they then squeeze all that information down to 2 tracks which represent the left and right signals in a stereo image. How they do it involves proper equalization of the source material, compression, panning, etc. and is really an art form in and of itself.
Producers are a lot harder to explain. I guess it’s fair to say that producers are hired by bands to be the objective party in the studio, the person that isn’t partial to any particular instrument or component of the band, and someone who can, with relative certainty, give guidance and focus to a process that can be very overwhelming. I see myself in that way. What I try and do is first make sure that I feel the band is ready to even set foot in the studio, and I do this by listening to the songs, and seeing if we have an album’s worth of material there. Then we’ll go into a rehearsal room, and we’ll tweak the arrangements if necessary, and we’ll figure out tempos, and we’ll work on drum parts, etc. We’ll do as much as we can in pre-production to avoid doing it later on in the studio. When that’s done, we move into the studio and my role as a producer I’d say is really about making sure that the band is performing to their fullest potential. Is this take good enough? Can it be better? Producers are often called on to be cheerleaders, to be ego strokers, to prop the musicians up when they need it, but I find that I suck really badly at that.
I also engineer my own records, and that’s another job description entirely. I won’t get into it now, but that involves setting up microphones, choosing the signal path used to record something, being the guy that gets the physical sound from the musician onto tape. I guess that would be as opposed to the producer who gets the “vibe” or “energy” or whatever of the performance onto tape.
How did you get involved with producing, mixing, and engineering albums?
Trombino: I really just sort of fell into it. I never really planned on doing this as a career, but because I was always interested in the process, and because my experience of recording with other people never really was satisfying to me, I just sort of started doing it. When I was in college, I started recording my bands and some friends’ bands in the electronic music studios at UCSD. The Jehu Merge 7” (Drive Like Jehu) was done there. When Jehu was looking for a place to mix YankCrime, we found this studio in North San Diego county that wasn’t being used much, and I was able to convince the owner to let me start bringing bands there. That turned into Big Fish, and that’s where I really started learning how to make records.
Many of the albums that you work on are with many bands of the punk rock or indie genre. Why is that?
Trombino: It’s not by design I promise! I find it strange, and a little unsettling because honestly it’s not my favorite kind of music on a personal level, and also I don’t like the idea that I would be associated with only one genre of music. I’ve always been very afraid of being pigeon-holed as a “punk guy”. I would rather be in the same category as a Tchad Blake, who can make an amazingly cool record in any genre he chooses. I appreciate a good pop song, and it really doesn’t matter to me what genre it comes from. It’s all about the song itself. I’d be happy to do just about any kind of music really, and in fact I wish I was working in a greater variety of genres.
You have built quite a reputation in the punk music world. When people close to the scene hear, “Mark Trombino will be producing this upcoming album”, they get excited. How does that feel for you being that it’s kind of rare in the music industry today to even know who the producers are.
Trombino: That’s awesome. I didn’t know that. I’m too detached from it, really. I just make records and I have little knowledge of how they’re received afterwards. But it’s good to know that people associate my name with a certain sound or quality or production value… Or based on some of the reviews that I have read, my “over production” value!
With doing many punk albums, many of those bands are on Drive Thru Records. Talk a little bit about your relationship with the people at Drive Thru?
Trombino: I think that I have a great relationship with Richard and Stephanie. They’re good people who put out records by bands they they absolutely love. They have an amazing amount of passion for every single band on their label – and I totally respect that.
How long does your actual production time on an album take?
Trombino: It depends. I’ll spend as long as I can making a record. I’ve done records in four days and I’ve spent as much as three months. I’ll use whatever I have. In general, though, I’d say it takes one to two weeks of pre-production, about five weeks of tracking, and a couple of weeks for mixing. That’s a pretty ideal scenario.
When you add programming into the music, how do you and the band work out the added sounds that you will incorporate into the specific song?
Trombino: For me it’s pretty simple. I just use whatever sounds I have at my disposal within the song itself. So if I need some loopy drum sounds, I’ll take the drums that I’ve already recorded for the song and process them a bit to make them sound different and use that. If I need a pad of some sort, I’ll take another sound and time stretch it a bunch of times until I get a nice harmonic texture to lay over the music. Occasionally I’ll pull a sound from outside the song, but since my sample library is pretty much non-existent, I don’t have much to choose from. I have to make it myself. It’s probably bullshit, but I feel that if I use pre-existing sounds and process them, then it’s more organic or more appropriate for some reason.
When adding programming sounds, what type of equipment do you use for those sounds?
Trombino: I use Pro Tools for just about everything. I don’t use that much gear. I like to work “in the box”.
Your work on the Jimmy Eat World albums, especially Clarity, in my opinion is like nothing out there. Talk about the relationship between you and the boys from Jimmy Eat World?
Trombino: We’ve done three records together and by now we are really close. The experience of making Bleed American, where we made a record on our own and completely without any label support or input, working guerilla style was something that I always look back on as my favorite recording experience ever. I point to that as THE way to make an album. Artist and producer without any label or outside input whatsoever. We made the record we wanted to make, on our own schedule, and on our own terms. The fact that it did so well is just icing on the cake. The process of making the album was more rewarding than anything else I’ve ever been a part of.
Is there an album you have produced that you are most proud of?
Trombino: Every album I make I love. You can not spend such an enormous amount of time and energy on something and not become attached to it in some way. And every album has given me the opportunity to learn something new or try out something new, or has forced me to think about things in a different way.
What is your personal opinion of the music out there today?
Trombino: I can’t make any sort of blanket statement about current music. I think that, as there has always been, there is an over abundance of shitty music out there, but that there is enough amazing and brilliant music currently to keep me from jumping off of a bridge. Personally, I like music that sounds fresh, that’s forward thinking, that isn’t too derivative. My favorite new record right now is The Ugly Organ by Cursive. Brilliant.
Any upcoming projects that you are currently working on or will be working on that you can share with Sound The Sirens?
Trombino: I’m currently working on The Living End. We’re about done tracking and then we move to mixing. After that I’ll be doing another Jimmy Eat World record, then another Finch record, and then another Starting Line record.