Erin Tonkon

Engineer + Producer,
Tonkon Productions


“My first day on the job was my first introduction to David Bowie. David liked me and I was in.”

May 7, 2016
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Elly Dallas

While messaging back and forth with Sara Landeau, she asked me if I knew Erin Tonkon. “I don’t. Should I?” I smiled ear-to-ear when I learned one of the greatest record producers of all time, Tony Visconti, employed an engineer in her 20s as his right-hand woman.

The theme of this issue is New York City Women in Sound. Are you a native New Yorker?
I moved around a lot as a kid, but grew up predominantly in San Diego. I originally went to college in Boston, but I wasn’t heading down the right path. I moved back to San Diego and began working in professional recording studios. After a few years, I realized there really wasn’t much opportunity for me to grow there professionally. I applied to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU and was elated when I was accepted. I had spent a lot of time in New York City prior to that and always felt I belonged here. I moved here in August of 2012 and it already feels like the home I was always searching for. New Yorkers are my people.

How has living in New York City affected your work?
New York City has urgency to it. I grew up in Southern California where everyone is laid back. That doesn’t work for me. I need to be around people who are hustling and New York provides that. I’m motivated by the constant movement. It somehow soothes me. I’ve been in recording sessions at studios in other areas of the country and the way they work is just different. I think it’s still very old school here. Everyone is expected to show up on time and ready to work. Musicians are expected to play their best and hardest. As an engineer and producer, I am expected to be quick and able to handle anything. I think the outside world seeps into the studio life here. I love it. It’s the only way I feel comfortable working. When I’m in the studio or working on a mix, my brain sort of switches into the same mode I’m in when I’m getting on the subway in rush hour. There is a destination in mind and my focus has to be 100% on that destination in order to get there.

This city is also still filled with some of the most creative and inspiring people in the world. I read that Patti Smith article where she urges young artists to leave New York, saying there was nothing here for us anymore. It really upset me. Sure, it’s changing. The whole world is changing. I am very sensitive to the native New Yorkers who see iconic and historical establishments replaced with chain restaurants and university dorms. It upsets me too, because I grew up worshipping the New York of the 1970s. But that ethos is still here. Maybe you have to look a little harder, but I did and I’ve found it. I will fight to be able to live here.

Tell me about working with Tony Visconti. How did you connect with him?
I had worked in several recording studios as a studio intern and in a lot of other aspects of the music industry prior to transferring to moving to New York. I was also a bit older than my fellow students - I transferred in at age 22 after working at recording studios while taking some time off from college. When it became time for everyone to discuss possible internships, it was suggested that I look for something more than a studio internship as I had already done that for years. My professors suggested I seek a mentorship opportunity, wherein I could really learn one-on-one from a producer whose work I admired. Tony’s name immediately popped into my head. A professor, Nick Sansano, knew him and connected me. He didn’t reply for a while, but when he did I was elated. I worked as a summer intern for a month before he hired me full time.

My work with him has been incredible. My first day on the job was my first introduction to David Bowie. Tony said this was a sort of crash test. He knew I had technical skills and could work in a professional environment, but he wanted to see if I had that extra something. David liked me and I was in. My second day on the job was editing drums played by Dave Grohl for Kristeen Young’s album The Knife Shift. The past two and a half years have been like that. A lot of intense work, a lot of spoken and unspoken lessons in what makes someone responsible for such legendary work over so many years. I can never thank him enough for all he has taught me. You get really close with someone when you sit next to him or her five or six days a week for a few years. We have the ability to communicate without needing to use words which is so helpful when a client is around. He put a lot of trust in me  which really taught me how to step up to the plate and forget whatever else is going on in my life and focus on the album. He has taught me so much about recording, mixing, production, arranging and just life in general. I really lucked out. I’ve heard stories of people working for absolute egomaniacs. Tony could be because he certainly has the discography to back that up, but he isn’t. He loves what he does and he’s worked really hard and sacrificed a lot to get where he is. He is seventy-one years old and still working. I admire that and look up to him so much. He never for one second made my gender an issue. He will be the first to correct someone for wrongly assuming I am his secretary or something sexist like that. He really loved his Italian mother and she clearly did a great job raising him to respect women.

I read you're in the middle of launching your own production company. What has that process been like?
It’s been exciting and terrifying. My reasoning behind it is to establish my own name and style. I certainly have learned a lot from Tony and he has done some of the records that most inform my style, but we are different people. He influences me but I put my own stamp on my work. The production company is a way to establish myself as a producer. It was easy to come up with my elevator pitch. I know who I am and what I do best. What isn’t easy is the business side of it. I work in the studio for a reason. I don’t like the business of this industry but I know I have to play the game. It’s uncomfortable discussing money and all that boring stuff, but it is important that I learn to do it. Hopefully a manager will one day relieve me of that duty. My goal is to nurture great bands and provide them with the sonic qualities they need to really make an impact. There is no greater joy for me than making the band happy.

from Erin’s feature with  Sonnox

from Erin’s feature with Sonnox

What else have you been working on lately?
Lately I have been working with a New York based band called One Prayer One Sin. They are all seasoned musicians but this is their first EP with this particular lineup. It’s Eno’s Here Comes The Warm Jets meets The Stooges The Idiot meets Bauhaus. Right up my alley. I can’t wait for everyone to hear this album.

What gear do you find yourself using the most often?
During recording I’m always using [Teletronix] LA-2As for the majority of my compression on basically everything but drums. That compressor gives warmth I want to commit to “tape” without doing anything too extreme that I might regret later. I love Distressors for drum and bass compression. They always do the trick. As for as mics go, I will geek out on the super high-end Neumanns and always need a few Royer R121s and Coles around. But no session is complete without Shure SM57s and the SM7B. I’ve worked with so many incredible vocal mics, but the SM7B just sounds great on all the artists I work with. Plus I have one at home and like to record in my bathroom.

As for mixing, the smartest decision I ever made was purchasing the Universal Audio Apollo Duo and the Octo DSP Accelerator. UAD’s plug-ins are far superior to any I’ve ever worked with. I will probably never be able to afford all the gear they model. Plus, they are the only company given permission to use the actual names of the third party pieces of hardware gear they are modeling. I’ve done A/Bs with the real deal and the resemblance is uncanny. I’m trying to narrow down the plugins I’m using in mixing at this point. Sometimes I waste too much time geeking out.

What's your favorite recording released this year?
Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly blew every other 2015 release I’ve heard out of the water. American Popular Music was founded in African-American roots. Kendrick incorporated jazz, funk, hip-hop, soul, and so many other genres in the most brilliant and prolific way. George Clinton heavily influences me and there are a lot of Parliament stamps all over that album. That album is something new and I think it represents where music needs to go. It is informed and nods to our predecessors, but it’s not contrived or stale. Plus his subject matter is raw and unedited and powerful. He didn’t hold back one bit. I love that. It’s a masterpiece and the production techniques are inspiring to me. Every track is lush and visceral. It’s carefully sculpted without being overly simplistic. I’d love to pick his brain.

The purpose of this zine is to showcase the achievements of women and gender non-conforming people in live and recorded sound. What do you think audioworkers can do to create a more inclusive environment in the studio?
I’ve listened to so many interviews and read so many articles and think pieces on the huge gender disproportion in the live and recorded sound industry. I’ve never heard anything I agree with. It’s always some sort of biological reasoning that makes no sense. I really believe the only reason there aren’t more women in this industry is because there aren’t enough women represented in a public way. I think when we are young and we think about what we want to be when we grow up, we look at the world around us and tend to head down paths where we see people like us. Somehow I avoided that. I always wanted to work in music and by age 14 I knew the studio life was where I wanted to be. I’m very stereotypically feminine. I dress very feminine. I look very feminine, I’m very empathetic and have no athletic ability whatsoever. I’m emphasizing our society’s depiction of femininity, something that luckily is being redefined. But I was never raised to believe that my gender said anything about my ability to achieve my dreams. It wasn’t until I started working in the music industry that I even realized there were so few women. At first I was very defensive and sensitive to it. Then I realized I had just had to work twice as hard to prove myself. Now I know my skill and talent and I let that speak for itself. There is absolutely no logical reason why a woman can’t be a bad ass engineer and producer. It’s a matter of being represented in a way that it becomes an option for young girls to strive towards. The music industry was founded on extreme racism and sexism. I’m hoping that is changing because it serves absolutely no purpose. To male audioworkers - treat us as equals because we are. That’s all.
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Since this interview was published, Erin’s production company has launched. She’s continued to work with legendary artists ranging from Daphne Guinness to Esperanza Spalding to The Damned.

- Women in Sound 2019 -