Catherine Vericolli: "There's something wonderfully organic about tracking to tape. It brings Me closer to the roots of the art every time I hit record."
owner/engineer, 513 analog studioS (Phoenix, AZ)
co-founder/co-editor, Pink Noise Magazine
Interview by Madeleine Campbell
I first saw Catherine Vericolli speak at the 2012 Potluck Audio Convention in Tuscon, Arizona. The panel was called “Analog Commitment in the Age of Undo.” Though most of my own tracking work is digital, I use a great deal of what was said in that discussion every time I’m in the studio. Catherine’s commitment goes beyond tracking and mixing: She’s made it her life’s work to create an environment in which artists can thrive while still feeling right at home.
Tell me about the early days of your career.
I started getting into recording in my early 20s because most of my friends happened to be musicians. I was never really interested in playing an instrument or being in a band. It seemed like a super fun and fascinating thing to get into and it gave me an opportunity to work and learn with my pals. Around 2002, I got pretty creatively invested in a particular artist and decided to get an education in the field. I attended a recording school in my home state of Arizona. At that time, around 2003 and 2004, there weren’t a lot of studios in Phoenix that weren’t super big and commercial so from that 513 Analog was born.
Did you have any experience as a business owner?
513 started out of the need to create a space to make the musicians that I was already working with more comfortable and to provide a homestead for a struggling Phoenix music scene around 2005. 513’s growth was honestly sort of an accident and happened really organically. I never expected that it was going to be a viable way to make a living.
For the first few years, I was really focused on learning the ins and outs of my gear and my room. As the community developed a greater interest in making records at 513, I had to start really thinking about it as a business, not just a fun hobby. 513 was one of the only spots in Phoenix to record to 2” tape, so it became a great little niche spot for analog tracking. Lucky for me, that was how I preferred to make records and I was able to get away with not really using much of a digital audio workstation [DAW] until around 2007.
I had no previous experience as a business owner, so there was a lot of trial and error. It seemed almost silly to charge folks what I should have for doing something that I loved so much so I struggled a lot with financials in the early years. I also bought a few pieces of really important gear without thinking about how they would be serviced when the need came. Turns out there are not a lot of studio technicians in Phoenix. I had to give myself a tough crash course in tech work for a few years which fortunately led to me being able to wire all my own rooms and patch bays myself as the studio expanded. I am often asked what I should have done differently if given the opportunity and my best answer is always “I wish I would have learned how to read schematics!”
What do you feel are the benefits of recording to tape?
There are a great number of benefits when recording to tape as opposed to recording to a DAW. While most of them are tone related, I think the greatest benefit is the experience. There’s something wonderfully organic about tracking to tape. It immediately brings me closer to the roots of the art every time I hit record. It also often unconsciously forces the band or musician to perform with more dedication because there are far less “undos” on tape. There is nothing like the look on a young musician's face the first time he or she sees a gigantic reel of tape loaded onto a machine. The first playback is a pretty magical moment.
Do you mix solely through the board or digitally, as well?
In the past five years, 513 has become a "best of both worlds" studio, where we can track and mix in either format. Since we have tape machines, full format analog consoles, and HD ProTools in both of our control rooms, we are able to find a happy medium for our engineers and clients and provide the easiest and most cost effective workflow for a project. Even though my heart lies in the all analog session, it’s often more effective to use our DAW’s for editing and mixing. A few times a year we have an all analog project that we get to work on, and those are always my favorites.
Do you have any “go to” microphones and outboard gear?
We have a lot of “go to” pieces at 513. Since we are in a small space and don’t have a lot of room for outboard racks, I’d say that we consider 90% of our gear to be “go to” gear. My favorites are always the simple classics. If I had to make a list of microphones, there are five that we use on almost every session: Neumann U47, Neumann 149, Coles 4038, Shure SM7B and AKG D112. We also have a pair of old Shure 544 Unidyne III that are basically [Shure SM] 57s with a lower roll off point, which makes them our secret weapon on toms. As for outboard, we love our Manley gear. We use our Massive Passive and Veri-Mu almost every day. My other favorites include our Great River MP 500 pre, API 512s, Distressors, LA-2A and Tube Tech CL-1B. We also have a pair of cheap DeltaLab Effectron II delays that are awesome for slap.
What is your proudest moment as an engineer?
That’s tough to answer because I have a lot of proud moments. For me, the most memorable things are the little things that happen in the studio everyday. When you are with a musician and they lay down a really great performance or part, it’s a great feeling to know that you built an environment for that to happen naturally. I think I’m most proud of the fact that our clients love our gear, rooms and staff, and come back year after year to work with us.
Repeat clients speaks volumes about you as an engineer and a business.
A more business oriented answer would be that recording budgets are getting smaller and smaller these days and a lot of musicians are choosing to make records at home on their own. It’s often tough for studios to adapt to this trend, so honestly every moment that 513 can continue to make records is a proud moment.
What are some of your favorite recordings?
I love almost all music and can usually find something in any recording that I find appealing. I especially like any recording that’s simple and from the heart. Old blues and Sun Studio-style rockabilly are up there on my list. Anything on STAX and Motown. There’s a feeling I get when listening to those recordings, like I’m sharing that moment or experience with the band. I can almost put myself in the control room and feel the mood of the musicians and perhaps even the mood of the cities and towns they were recorded in. A lot of those songs were recorded live in one or two takes and some of the best takes were happy accidents. It’s the happy accident moments in my own recordings that I love the most.
What advice would you give to a young person interested in sound recording?
Every industry or profession greatly benefits from a co-ed environment. Sound recording is no exception, especially since it is a particularly male-dominated field. The most important thing is to love what you do. If you are truly passionate about your work, it is almost impossible for that passion not to be contagious to others. If you feel that you are struggling or maybe not being taken as seriously as you’d like, then that is all the more reason to push yourself harder!
I’m still learning new things in the studio everyday. It’s silly to think that anyone knows all there is to know about making records. Listening and being open to learning is really a key part of being successful. The more you listen, the more you are able to adapt to any situation in the studio whether its directly related to the business, the music or to the folks playing the music. All of the female mentors I had growing up and through my audio education always stressed that women tend to have better listening skills in general. That may or may not be true, but if it is, then perhaps as a woman, I already had an advantage.
Since this interview, Catherine, along with co-founder and co-editor Allen Farmelo, began an online audio publication, Pink Noise, dedicated to “increasing the diversity of voices speaking about recordmaking and to fostering an intellectual tradition to accompany the practice of recordmaking.”