“Partner with people who have strengths that are different from yours. That’s every bit as important as the gear when it comes to producing top notch music.”
Renaissance recordist Reto Peter is a music producer, audio engineer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, teacher, and voting member of the Recording Academy. He was worked in nearly every genre of music, including indie artists from his native Switzerland to breakthrough hip-hop act Flipsyde in his adopted hometown of Oakland — also home to Green Day, for which Reto earned a TEC Award for his work on their Grammy-winning album American Idiot. He owns a “greatest hits” collection of classic studio mics, with the latest being four large-diaphragm condensers from Audix: a pair of A231 vocal mics and a pair of SCX25As. He spent some of his valuable time to share his career highlights, recording techniques, and experience of his Audix mics.
How did you first enter the world of music production?
To take it back to the beginning, I played in bands starting at 15 and had played drums since I was eight. At some point I got my hands on an 8-track deck and started recording my friends’ bands in the early 1990s.
Did this lead to studying it formally?
Yes, it certainly did. At 18 I knew I wanted to get into audio engineering. At that time there weren’t many schools in Europe — I checked out SAE in Berlin and for me, it emphasized the technical over the musical too much. I wound up getting accepted to Berklee in Boston, where my high school big-band instructor had gone. That’s how I first came to the U.S. At night they opened the studios up to students for our own projects. I just lived there, taking classes during the day and doing sessions all night. I didn’t sleep much! I was just so excited at all this opportunity to play and record with different people. I was exposed to so many forms of music and cultures that I had been relatively isolated from in Switzerland.
Can you point to an early “big break” moment after graduating school?
In 1997 I moved to New York. I found an internship at The Magic Shop in SoHo, which was this iconic one-room facility. They had a wrap-around 80-series Neve console and an amazing vibe. A lot of bigger indie bands came through there with their own producers and engineers, and I got to assist and really learn the people end of how a record was made — the hierarchy in the studio, when it’s your turn to speak up and when it’s not, things you don’t learn in school. The owner, Steve Rosenthal, also owned a club called The Living Room on the Lower East Side. It was a hub of the singer-songwriter scene, and where artists like Norah Jones came up. I was the sound guy there five nights a week, so I learned the live end of things.
What brought you to the West Coast?
My wife, who I met in Boston, wanted to move back to Oakland to be closer to her parents as they got older. So, I started over. For a time, I worked for this startup Savage Beast. It was the precursor to Pandora, and I was a music analyst helping to build their database and the algorithms that recommend music to you. Soon after I found a job at John Lucasey’s Studio 880, initially as more of an office manager. When Green Day spent over a year there doing American Idiot, I found myself sharing engineering duties with Chris Dugan, the audio engineer for the band.
There’s a story about how this led to some of your first freelance successes, such as producing Flipsyde …
Yes. I partnered with drummer Michael Urbano. He had played sessions with Sheryl Crow, Cracker, Todd Rundgren. He wanted to form a production company to develop Bay Area artists, and we just started making beats in his garage studio in Berkeley. That’s how we met Flipsyde. As there was some overlap with Green Day’s sessions, I was able to play a demo for Rob Cavallo, who was head of A&R for Reprise at the time. He wanted to sign Flipsyde, then Interscope got wind of it and wanted them, too. They eventually signed with Interscope, and we made their entire first album in that little garage of Michael’s.
In addition to being a producer and engineer, you’re also a music creator. Tell us about wearing that hat.
Starting around 2009, I teamed up with Dan Travanti, who had played in the Seattle punk band The Briefs. We just started writing music, and had a handful of agents who pitched our catalog to TV producers and the like. We did that for almost ten years, and I think because we were both musicians and I had the engineering chops, we could crank out anything in any style fairly quickly.
Your studio now is in your home. What led to that decision, as opposed to working in commercial spaces?
Yes, it’s the former downstairs family room. It’s about 500 square feet. I had been in a bunch of studio spaces, but the pandemic more or less removed any need for a large live tracking room. I have a drum kit miked up permanently, and a little vocal booth, a few guitar heads always ready to go. My philosophy is that anytime I or someone else gets an idea, we should be able to press Record and go, without losing time or inspiration to setup issues.
How have your Audix microphones found their way into your workflow there?
I like tracking with large-diaphragm mics in general because I feel like they give me more to work with in the mixing process. I recently used the A231 on three projects, all with male lead vocals. One, a Swiss punk band that came to Oakland, had group vocals. I really liked its sound with all three bands. That mic has some bottom! There’s a proximity effect as with any cardioid pattern, but that can be very cool for vocalists who step away from the mic. In that respect and with its general warmth it reminds me of a vintage U87, only with more sheen in the top end, whereas the vintage mic can get dark. How can I describe this better? The A231 captured a lot of raw material to work with, so the tracks really responded to my mixing decisions after the fact. And always in a pleasant way. If I added more top end, it didn’t sound harsh — it was just more of what I wanted to hear.
What instrument do you find most challenging to record and how do you approach it?
Acoustic guitars, no question. They can get woofy in the low-mids and you don’t want that to overpower the definition in the treble. One time I was recording Counting Crows, and producer Brian Deck wanted to track the guitar without any EQ on the way in — just getting a good tone from proper mic placement. I wound up pointing a small-diaphragm condenser around the 17th or 18th fret, and I often record acoustic guitar in mono. Recently on a different session, another project that was mainly acoustic guitar, I used the SCX25As as a spaced stereo pair. They gave me a very nice, round sonic picture of the guitar.
Have the Audix mics surprised you in any way?
I really like the SCX25A on toms! I’m not talking overheads, though I like them for that, too — I mean close-miking. With some inline pads added to prevent overloads, they’re perfect. They have the body but also the crack I want to hear. I’m a big fan of close-miking, so I’m looking forward to using the 25As a lot more in that application.
Another gig where the Audix stuff performed well was this old-timey radio play done by high school students in San Francisco. They read lines and used objects to create sound effects. They were also all masked due to Covid. I hung the A231s on boom stands, slightly high so the actors could read their scripts, which were on music stands. The SCX25As close-miked the two sound effects stations, and the flatness of the capsule made them easy to position.
Were you pleased with the results?
Quite! I got all the low and low-mid I needed, especially from the female actors. I think this is because the proximity effect of the A231 begins a bit farther from the mic, and that was a good thing in this case. In the highs, I only had to boost around 8kHz a little to compensate for the masks. To listen to the final product, you wouldn’t know they were wearing them. For the sound effects, which included silverware, paper noises, and an old typewriter, I didn’t need to EQ anything. The SCX25As sounded perfect out of the box.
I’m really happy with these professional ventures using Audix. If someone needs a great vocal mic, I think the A231 is the way to go. And the performance and value of the SCX25A is outstanding.”
What’s your signal chain in the studio?
Well, first let me describe my approach to buying gear. I’d rather have just a few “evergreen” pieces than be upgrading all the time, so usually I buy one or two really nice things if there’s money left over at the end of the year. Over 20 years or so, this has built up to 24 inputs worth of class-A and tube mic preamps from Neve, API, and Helios, as well as compressors like an LA-2A, an 1176, a pair of Distressors, and a Manley Vari-Mu.
Do you have any advice for people out of high school who are considering learning the recording arts? Or perhaps for yourself when you were at that stage?
One: Get a good education, strive to keep your grades up, and learn your craft. A lot of good things will follow from there. I came into my internship at The Magic Shop knowing how to set up a session and align a tape machine if need be. That made a difference.
Two: Human connection and partnerships are just as important as skill. I teach part-time at a small music college in Berkeley, and a lot of my students are doing some solid work sitting at home on their computers, but they’re not hanging out with each other enough. They’re not jamming enough. That’s where a professional network begins. The creative teams you see getting the dream gigs and winning awards? They grew up together and/or went to music school together.
Three: It’s harder than ever to find a studio where you can intern and be a fly on the wall because unlike in the 1990s when I graduated, there just aren’t that many left. I empathize with that. It makes it even more important to partner up with people who have strengths that are different from yours. That’s every bit as important as the gear when it comes to producing l top notch music.