I LISTEN AND REALLY TRY TO INTERNALIZE WHAT THE MUSICIANS AND GIRLS WANT. SINCE I'VE EXPERIENCED THE PROCESS OF RECORDING AND NOT KNOWING HOW TO ASK FOR SOMETHING, OR NOT HAVING THE TERMINOLOGY, I MAKE SURE THEY DON'T HAVE TO GO THROUGH THAT IN MY SPACE.
guitarist, The Julie Ruin + founder/educator, Brooklyn Music Studio for Women and Girls
May 7, 2016
interview by Madeleine Campbell
illustration by Elly Dallas
Whether touring internationally, building and maintaining her own studio, recording and mixing bands with gear from New York City’s most influential music venue or teaching youth how to play various instruments, Sara Landeau has made it her life’s work to be who she (and countless other women) needed when she was younger.
Are you a native New Yorker?
I've lived in New York City my entire adult life but grew up in the midwest, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Pre-internet years were all about how to get to NYC so in a way, I think I had been obsessed with it long ago. I was romanced early on.
What role do you feel living in NYC has had on your musical career?
I started my first band, an all-girl punk trio, when I moved here a long time ago. We had all met at CBGB's where I began as a waitress at 21. That was also my first recording experience. I think about moving to LA often, getting a house and building a recording studio in a garage with plenty of room. In some sense, everything I put in my studio, I think about how it would work there. New York City is a hard place to do what you love and make ends meet financially, but I love The Julie Ruin and the constant access to everything the city has to offer. It all feeds into the music and engineering process, somehow.
As a fellow Girls Rock! camp volunteer, tell me about your experience with Brooklyn's Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. I read that your involvement led you to your current band, The Julie Ruin?
When Girls Rock Camp first came to Brooklyn in 2005, I immediately signed in on it. It was exactly what I had in mind to either try to start myself or become involved with. I'd pretty much do whatever they'd ask. "Hey, can you go pick up these donation box of cupcakes and on the way grab two girls who need a ride, and oh yeah, their drum kits and guitars too, and if you don't mind, put missing strings on them, and since there's just one amp between all the campers can you find splitters and make it work, and then yeah...band coach five teenage girls and keep an eye on their little sister? Ok, cool..." The first year was funny. It got very organized later. Multitasking comes naturally to me. The fact that I played several instruments helped lead to the natural inclination to love band coaching, teaching and eventually engineering and producing. Maybe it’s using a little of that "jack of all trades, master of none" skill set.
One of the teen bands that year, Adventures of Isabel, was interested in continuing after the summer session so I signed up to meet them every Friday. Kathleen Hanna, who I later started The Julie Ruin with, was the other volunteer band coach. We had a blast coaching the girls. They were completely out of control. We recorded a few of their original songs at Oscilloscope, and also tracked from Kathleen's laptop in their basement rehearsal room. Kathleen and I kept in touch and talked about playing together one day, which eventually happened, and we finally turned it into a very early version of The Julie Ruin in 2010.
What led you to open Brooklyn Music Studio for Women and Girls in 2003?
I was giving private guitar lessons at the time and stumbled across a big rehearsal space in Brooklyn at an affordable rate. I took the lease over. In NYC, that doesn't happen often so you have to grab it and never let go. The Greenpoint neighborhood has grown more fancy around my space. There’s better coffee, restaurants, and bars, even an East River waterfront hangout area. Knowing the rent would rise was just more motivation to work harder in order to keep this room. I built soundproofed walls, a drum riser, and carpeted, changing the raw space gradually into a place to record. Soundproofing is constantly a work in progress. Every room sounds different and neighbors will always find a way to complain.
What kind of soundproofing have you tried?
I built soundproofed walls with the initial plan of a box-in-a-box, allowing a foot and 1/2 of space between the new drywall and the original wall to the room next door. I was broke at the time so I filled it with as much insulation as I could afford as well as other paddings like rugs and leftover carpeting. In the end, I learned that the only thing that stops sound is solid mass. It took a few years of filling in holes and reworking the ceiling to get a decent room. The drum riser, carpeted and also filled with insulation, helped the low end from going to the room below. On top of the wall treatment, I added Audimute draping to the walls and a friend put up panels covered in purple cloth on the ceiling. I don't have the physical strength to do everything so it was a bit frustrating. Soundproofing is constantly a work in progress and by doing it, I learned to really appreciate a good sounding room. It doesn't have to be expensive. Oddly, less is more, when done correctly.
For the first several years I just taught guitar, bass, and drums. Often my guitar students would see the shiny drum kit in the corner and their eyes would pop. I could tell which guitar student really wanted to be a drummer. I did a lot of cross lessons, as well as music theory and band workshops. Eventually I hired freelance piano, vocal, and other teachers. Currently, I offer rehearsal space, recording space and continue to teach private and group classes. A little of everything happens there and it’s a good scene. 90% women!
How did you start engineering and producing records?
It started when I played with other bands when I was very young and couldn't get the sound I wanted from my instrument in the recording studio. I mean, I didn't have the terminology I needed to ask for it. I look back on some of the recordings I did when and wish I could redo them now that I understand space and reverb and compression and plug-ins and microphone placement - all ideas that intimidated me at one time. I thought then that I just couldn't wrap my mind around these things, maybe because I am a visual learner, or maybe I wasn't mathematical enough? Mansplaining just frustrated me. I needed to back up and understand why and how things worked. I needed to understand from the beginning! I took some crash courses but they still skipped the foundations of how a "sound house" is held together. Finally I took a course at NYU. The teacher showed up looking straight out of Lord of the Rings, complete with the longest hair I've ever seen on a man, a single braid down the center back, and a serious but humble dark outfit. I thought “This is either going to be really bad or really good.” He turned out to be the best audio engineering teacher I ever had. It finally clicked! I will never hair-shame a man again. On my website at the time, I had written "Are you sick of guys with ponytails teaching you Clapton riffs? Come to my studio..." and so on. I took it down. My other start came from meticulously reading Tape Op. I started reading that before I knew what all the terms meant. They made it fun and accessible. Thank god for that magazine.
What is your current recording setup like?
I am definitely a lo-fi engineer with inexpensive gear but I’m obsessed with making it work. If it doesn't, I will either borrow or purchase what is needed as I go. I'm always trying to learn something new about recording and am constantly listening, listening, listening. Right now I record through a Mackie mixer, ProTools 10 and a few different interface converters. I have one excellent mic and a slew of [Shure SM] 57s. Sometimes I just track the drums and bass on their own because of the limited amounts of inputs - eight. Sometimes I'll build a box for the guitar amp and record everything at once, embracing the bleed. I've tried the David Byrne and Brian Eno way of singing against the speakers which pump out the instruments. That worked well for the band ESG sounding band, Penis, I recorded earlier this year. A majority of my equipment came from CBGB's after they closed. My mixing board is from the downstairs lounge and the mics and cables are from the club itself. I was a bartender there in my 20s and worked up until the day they closed. The sound people are still close friends and the ones who have helped me the most to get my studio set up. They are unflappable. I text one of them daily. My equipment is not fancy but I believe in its strong workhorse quality.
That’s amazing. You have some of the most historic gear in music New York City music history. What are your goals as an engineer? By that I mean, what kind of recordings do you strive to make?
The first thing I always do is listen to what the band's goals are. Not just today's goals, but like, what does their dream album actually sound like? People have strong opinions of certain guitar sounds, snare styles, and effects that can either make them happy or kill them with a bad association. So I try to really get in there and dig it out. It helps me learn so much in the end. And since I usually record punk bands or something in that vein, we often agree about not getting too slick. I've accidentally made things too slick and I was shocked! I'm not a slickery-type! Sometimes we've had to go back in and fuck it up a little more to even something out. Again, I listen and really try to internalize what the musicians and girls want. Since I've experienced the process of recording and not knowing how to ask for something, or not having the terminology, I make sure they don't have to go through that in my space. Almost every band I've recorded or produced have been all females, save one, and I strive to make a supportive environment for them. There's something about a new band hearing themselves for the first time in the way they envisioned that is so rewarding.
Do you find being a musician and an educator has helped you progress as an engineer?
Unquestionably so! When you're pulling songs out for students to learn daily, you listen to a lot of music. I've started to obsess over the recording of any little tune requested. I've always been into serious listening, probably stemming from being driven around listening to car radio as a child in the midwest. But now I hear things in detail I never heard then. It’s made me more passionate about engineering and producing. I even tear up when watching a movie and the soundtrack is so good, or hell, even some random brief but exciting recording in a commercial will make me emotional. I'll look it up and try to understand how they got that sound.
On the flip side, you do so much. Do you find it difficult to balance many hats? Any advice on achieving and maintaining that balance?
I don't advise anyone to do as much as I take on, especially if you don't have to. But I'm not terribly good at relaxing. I meticulous notes and list out things every day, or when I can. If you are someone who really likes to learn, educating and producing have infinite potential, which is exciting.