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Studio Legends: John Siket

Studio Legends: John Siket
Legendary recording engineer John Siket works out of his Manhattan home studio. Photo by Annie Atlasman

From sessions with Steve Lillywhite, to pawnshop trolling for soundmakers with Thurston Moore, to making improv records with Phish, Siket is a creature of the console.

John Siket’s musical footprint is massive. As a producer and engineer, his resume reads like a who’s who of cool, influential, and creative musicians. Bands as disparate as Sonic Youth, Phish, Dave Matthews Band, moe., and Helmet have recorded with him. He’s worked with legendary producers like Butch Vig (Nirvana, Sonic Youth, Helmet, Garbage) and Steve Lillywhite (U2, Peter Gabriel, the Rolling Stones). And he may be the only producer/engineer to have an album named after him (Phish’s The Siket Disc).

Siket’s first serious gig was a summer internship in the mid 1980s at Bearsville Studios in upstate New York. “I was relegated to the shop,” he said. “I got to solder miles and miles of cable. But it was fun. I was in the studio, technically.” After a short stint substitute teaching and painting houses, Siket landed a job at Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1988. “I think they hired me because I knew how to solder really well,” he said. “I didn’t care. I was in a studio and I just had that fever.” He worked his way up the ranks, from assistant to house engineer, and cut his teeth recording acts like Yo La Tango, Freedy Johnston, and Fountains of Wayne.

But New York City was calling. “Engineers came over from New York and displayed cool studio wizardry that we knew nothing about,” he said. “I decided that I needed to see that firsthand.” He got a job as assistant engineer at midtown’s Sound on Sound in 1992. It was a commercial studio— elite, state-of-the-art, high-pressure, and corporate—that recorded jingles and worked with New York’s first-call session players, arrangers, and producers.

Siket made it his business to be at work when Butch Vig came to check out Sound on Sound for Sonic Youth. “At that point, Butch was the hottest producer in the country,” Siket recalls. Vig had just produced Nirvana’s Nevermind. “I told him, ‘We’re the greatest. You have to record here.’” Siket worked those sessions with Vig (for Sonic Youth’s Dirty) and continued to work with him on Freedy Johnston’s critically acclaimed This Perfect World, Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star; Helmet’s Betty; and many others.

“If the drummer was dragging, we could somehow take the late snare drums and pull them up into time, just from taking out minute slivers in the tape.”

That was just the beginning. Siket went on to build a diverse and extensive discography doing sessions with Steve Lillywhite, Phish, moe., and a small army of festival headliners, and also started teaching at New York’s School of Audio Engineering. He’s still at it. “One thing I always dreaded was waking up and seeing a recording console,” he says, referring to the small studio that currently doubles as his Manhattan apartment. “I spend 12-14 hours a day looking at one now, anyway. I see it all day long.”

Premier Guitar spoke with Siket about working with great producers, Phish’s unorthodox approach to the studio, the death of tape, the pros and cons of digital recording, capturing great guitar tones, and window-shopping with Thurston Moore.

You’re sometimes credited as either the engineer, mixer, or producer. How do you define those different responsibilities?
An engineer is the guy who gets the sounds. He or she sets up and chooses microphones, employs equalization, compression, delay and reverb—and basically does the recording. The mixer balances the final recording to two tracks, consolidates all the tracks, whether it’s 4-track, 8-track, 16-track, 24-track, 48-track—or now in the digital age, unlimited, ad nauseam tracks—to a stereo file or an analog 2-track. The producer is responsible for how a record comes out. He or she hires the engineer, decides to work with a band or gets hired by a band, and chooses the songs. How involved producers are varies. Sometimes they cowrite and change a lot of stuff. Sometimes they don’t. They hopefully coax a great performance. They choose the takes. They can be hands-on in the mixing. I’ve had producers push me aside, grab the EQ, and say, “No, no, no. Do it like this.” Others don’t touch the console, they are there just as an objective ear. Producers are also responsible for keeping it on budget, perhaps hiring session musicians, choosing the studio, and they are the liaison with the record company. But basically, the producer is responsible for how the record turns out.

Let’s talk about some of the different producers you worked with. What are some things you learned from working with Butch Vig?
I knew how to edit tape, but he showed me tape editing on a whole other level. If the drummer was dragging, we could somehow take the late snare drums and pull them up into time, just from taking out minute slivers in the tape.

Manually, with a razor blade?
Yeah, but you had to be late. If you were early we couldn’t do anything about it because you can always take time out, but you can’t put anything in [laughs]. I learned a lot from Rob Grenoble [from Water Music in Hoboken] about the importance of finding the right tempo. I learned a lot about editing from Rob, too. But Butch took editing—and especially fixing things in post-production—to another level. Like tuning vocals with the Eventide Harmonizer. We didn’t have Auto-Tune back then. We would use the Eventide Harmonizer, bounce vocals through it, sharpen or flatten them to get them into tune, and reference them to a Peterson Strobe Tuner. We had to figure out how to set the harmonizer, how many cents flat or sharp, in order to get it into tune. And that was real grueling, laborious, syllable-by-syllable work—depending on how heavy it had to be—but at the end you could transform a performance pitch-wise. It sounded really good, but it took a while.

I really absorbed editing and I got so good at it. I took that skill with me and used it until we weren’t using tape anymore. But I apply some aspects to how we do it now. It wasn’t just the skill of editing, it was the art of editing. For example, I did a record two weeks ago and listening down I liked all the verses from one take and the rest of the song from another take. I didn’t have to do a test edit—it was just that sense of tempo—I made the edit and the band was flabbergasted. I was 95 percent sure it was going to work.

John Siket with the band Phish at Bearsville Studios in October of 1997. Photo by Sofi Dillof / Courtesy of Phish

Can you talk about working with Steve Lillywhite and the Dave Matthews Band on 1996’s Crash?
We had just finished the Soul Asylum record I did with Butch [Let Your Dim Light Shine, 1995]. I got a call from RCA, they wanted me to work with this band called the Dave Matthews Band. I hadn’t really heard them. But I asked, “Who’s producing?” They said, “Steve Lillywhite.” And I was in. His name was on so many records that I owned. I just said, “Oh man, I’ve got to work with this guy.” That’s where I learned a lot more about coaxing a good performance out of the band, making them feel at ease in the studio, and mixing as you go.

What does “mixing as you go” mean?
Don’t put off decisions until the mix. Make as many decisions in the moment as you can. We would print effects. Anything we could do that would shape the track toward [Lillywhite’s] final vision, we would do right there on the spot. Every time we did an overdub, we did a mix. By the time we were done overdubbing we had rough-mixed the song so much that it wasn’t a problem. We did our last mix because there was nothing left to record. I used to view recording and mixing as two separate processes. He taught me to view them as the same process.

“On Pro Tools you’ve got to open one channel, pull it down, fiddle with it, close it, then go grab the other one. It reminds me of accounting.”

So he did everything in the moment?
Yeah. It’s a very English way of doing things. I think English engineers are a lot less conservative than American engineers. They’re very apt to print effects. They probably use a lot more compression and EQ going to tape than American engineers do.

At first I was resistant. He said, “You should be able to mix three or four songs a day by the time we are done with this project.” To me, it took a day to mix a song—that was just so ingrained in my head. I said, “Name me a song that you’ve mixed in a short amount of time.” He said, “‘New Year’s Day.’ Do you know that song? I’ll tell you how it goes: I was doing vocals with Bono and he said, ‘I’m not really happy with these lyrics.’ I said, ‘Take 30 minutes and sort out your lyrics.’ We sat around for 15 minutes and did nothing. And then I said, ‘Let’s mix ‘New Year’s Day.’’” They had 30 minutes, they didn’t do anything for the first 15 minutes, and then it occurred to him, “Let’s just mix ‘New Year’s Day.’ Why not?” And they did it in two passes.

Every rough mix that we did, we took it very seriously—we acted like it was a big deal. So think of it: If you mix a song 10 times that way, you’re going to remember a lot of what happened. It takes the fear out of mixing. Steve’s sitting there, you’re sitting there, you’ve seen each other do the same thing 10 times before, you’re just going to try to do it a little bit better—but you try to do that every time—and you’ve got everything recorded. So it’s just another exercise. It’s very smart and it’s kind of obvious when I look at it in retrospect. It’s really just a good way to work.

He would also play rough mixes for Dave Matthews’ friends when they came by the studio. He would pay close attention to what they responded to. One day I asked him, “How come you’re always playing rough mixes for everybody?” And he said, “How am I going to know if they’re any good?” That stunned me. He was completely serious.

How did he get the band to relax and give a good performance?
He played a lot of ping-pong with them. He set up a ping-pong table in the live room. The band would get wound up and play ping-pong. There was a ragged, old yellow shirt that the leading ping-pong player wore. It was called, “the Yellow Jersey.” “Who’s going to get the Yellow Jersey?” [Laughs.] He did that a lot. He distracted them.

You’ve done a lot of work with Phish—Billy Breathes, The Story of the Ghost, Farmhouse, Slip Stitch and Pass, The Siket Disc—how did they distinguish between live and in the studio?
When I met those guys, they were basically tired of a producer telling them what to do. They wanted an engineer who could make producer decisions, but remain an engineer unless asked to do so. That was me. We were in the studio for nine weeks.

I learned a lot from those guys. One thing they asked me to do was, “Take a blank reel of tape, roll halfway in, and then one of us is going to play one note, another person is going to play one note, and then another one.” But that didn’t last too long, it soon turned into one person would play something—a short phrase—and he could play any instrument. For example, Trey [Anastasio] played drums at 4:37, Mike [Gordon] played violin at 2:07. You had all these little patches. Then someone would say, “I liked what you did on drums. I’m going to add a bass part to that.” Then they changed the rules a little bit. Instead of recording something, you could erase something, and you could erase somebody else’s part. You had this constant, “I am going to record or I am going to erase.” A couple of songs started to come out of these little things. There’s a segue called “Steep” on Billy Breathes that’s part of that.

Those guys rehearse like crazy, too. To this day they take rehearsals very seriously—you can’t call in sick to rehearsal, you’ve got to be there—but each one of those guys loves music so much that it’s okay. I saw them two years ago at Madison Square Garden and they sounded better than ever to me and they just looked like they were having a great time. Simultaneously being really serious about it but enjoying themselves, too.

John Siket (middle, facing camera) backstage at Phish’s Clifford Ball festival in Plattsburgh, New York, circa 1996.
Photo by Danny Clinch / Courtesy of Phish

What does Trey do for getting guitar sounds in the studio?
At the beginning of Billy Breathes Trey said, “I need to find a new sound.” He brought up vintage guitars and amplifiers and he started using them. But then he was like, “This isn’t me.” He just used his custom Paul Languedoc guitar and his homemade cabinets. And it’s true, that’s his sound. It’s a very distinctive sound.

His rig is stereo, so when he played through his rig I recorded him in stereo. I used a pair of Sennheiser 409s or a pair of [Shure] SM57s. I probably used a little bit of compression with him and not a lot of EQ. His sound is very sculptured, to my ear, already.

Can you talk about The Siket Disc a little bit? What’s it like having an album named after you?
Oh man, that. Well, it felt good, actually [laughs]. The genesis of that project was that Trey told Steve Lillywhite, “We’ve been off the road now for 20-some weeks. We should really be making a record while we’re mid-tour, not when we’re sitting around for 20 weeks. During the first substantial break we have on our next tour, fly to that area and we’ll go into the studio and record.” Trey came up with this idea where Steve would pick songs—we had a Doors song, we had a really obscure Bill Withers song—and Steve played just a snippet of that in their headphones. They would learn it. Then they would morph a jam from it until you couldn’t recognize it any more.

We did a lot of that in Seattle. But we didn’t end up keeping any of it, which I was really surprised about. Later on, Trey approached me and said, “I want to go into the studio and we’re not going to have any plan. We’re just going to go in and play and see what comes out.” We went to Bearsville. We rented out some studio time and The Siket Disc is that. It’s pure improvisation. I don’t think anybody came in with anything written down. I was mixing it live basically. That was my monitor mix. I recorded it to DAT. It went to multitrack, but it went live to 2-track as well. About 80 percent of that record is mixed live, too. We did one or two songs over in the studio again. It was kind of live on my side and on their side. But if anybody can pull it off, it’s those guys. A lot of people really like that record. It’s all instrumentals. But it’s concise, at least. And it goes by and it’s like, “Hey. That was cool. Let’s hear it again.”

“I think English engineers are a lot less conservative than American engineers. They’re very apt to print effects. They probably use a lot more compression and EQ going to
tape than American engineers do.”

You did a lot of work with Sonic Youth, including producing the Washing Machine album. Tell us about recording a 20-minute opus like “The Diamond Sea.”
We were staying in a hotel in downtown Memphis. Within walking distance from our hotel was a pawnshop, and in the window of the pawnshop there was a big guitar pedal made by Ludwig [the Phase II Synthesizer]. It had a control on it that said “animation.” I was a rabid gear hound at the time and I had never heard of a Ludwig pedal. I told Thurston [Moore], “You’ve got to see this. It looks so outrageous.” It looked like an elongated lunch box and it had a latch. You opened the latch and the thing folded down and here was the pedal, with all these controls. Thurston saw it and bought it instantly. He used it that day on “The Diamond Sea.” I thought it was really ballsy that he got this thing—and here’s this big flagship song on the record—and he plugged it in and made it part of the sound.

That was one thing about those guys: They didn’t try to baby their guitars, they really tortured them. To get their guitars into some of those tunings wasn’t the greatest thing for the guitar. Lee [Ranaldo] told me, “They’re tools, man. We don’t care. We’re not trying to walk around with museum pieces. They are devices that allow us to express ourselves.” They didn’t abuse their guitars per se, but they didn’t look babied.

They looked loved.
Yeah. I mean, Thurston played through a Peavey amp. He could have had any amp he wanted, but that was the amp he wanted. It wasn’t an amp that he just ended up with. He liked it for some particular reason.

Were they particular about using the studio space or did you just close-mic the amps?
No, I didn’t tight-mic the amplifiers at all. I went a couple of feet out. Somebody told me how Television was recording their guitars around that time [for Television, 1992]. For some reason they weren’t putting the mics right up on the grills, they were using two condenser mics a few feet back. I liked their guitar sound, so I decided to try a more ambient approach. Anybody can jam a 57 up in front of the speaker, that’s not new. We were working at Sear Sound for Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star, and they had a lot of RCA ribbon mics there that were in really great shape. I put both a RCA ribbon and a Neumann U 47 a few feet back from the amps. I used the faders to combine, make a mix of the two mics, and send it to one track. I did a variation of that in Memphis.

When recording great guitar sounds, is it more important to get a great sound to tape or do you prefer to EQ it after the fact?
I used to be of the school where I told the guitar player, “Don’t add any delay or reverb, I’ve got better delays and reverbs than you do. I’ll add them later.” I learned the hard way that people play to their sound better than if I’m trying to approximate it later. I try to get the most finished sound I can at the recording, though I’m not above adding something later.

Lately I’ve been taking a raw direct from the guitar, in case I want to embellish it later. I like to use directs. Sometimes I’ll fold them into the guitar sound. I typically record them without compression so they are as dynamic as can be and then when I’m mixing them down, I’ll compress them. I’ll blend them in a little bit to the amp sound, just to fill it out. I don’t necessarily have to put another layer of distortion on it or something like that, but I’ll push that fader into the amp sound to fill it out. A direct is often such an alien sound from the amp, it’s so different—the amp just doesn’t seem to have any of those frequencies. I take a direct—pre effects—and record it straight. One box I’m really fond of is the Roger Linn AdrenaLinn. It’s probably one of my favorite amp simulators, if I had to have one.

How about acoustics?
Sometimes I’ll do a double track and I’ll Varispeed it down so when the doubled track plays back at normal speed it plays back a little bit brighter and a little bit sharper. Just a very tiny amount though.

When you started out everyone recorded to 2-inch tape. The world is completely different now. How do you adapt?
I made the transition from tape to digital kind of gradually. I went from a completely tape-based workflow to a dedicated hard disk system called RADAR, which stands for Random Access Digital Audio Recorder. And they were dedicated machines. Although they were computers recording to hard disk, they didn’t do anything else. They were specialized. I really like that system. I used it for as long as I possibly could, probably a bit longer. It sounded fantastic and it reminded me of tape. The auto locator looked like a multitrack reel-to-reel locator, so I didn’t feel like I had to use a screen if I didn’t want to.

I like the sound of tape, but you can’t go back. If I had my druthers, I would record to 16-track, 2-inch and then bounce it into Pro Tools and do the edits in there. Because I do like the sound of a tape machine that is well maintained. But I don’t run into those scenarios very often. I haven’t used multitrack tape in probably six years. It’s been a little while.

Do you use Pro Tools now? You’re not using RADAR anymore?
Just Pro Tools now.

Do you still use the console when you do the mix?
Yeah. But it’s more about the freedom to do something—to reach over and grab an EQ and then reach over and grab a different EQ. On Pro Tools you’ve got to open one channel, pull it down, fiddle with it, close it, then go grab the other one. It reminds me of accounting [laughs]. Whereas on a console, you’re like, “Oh yeah, I feel like turning up a reverb or adding some treble.” I go around like a bumblebee and touch certain knobs, and the mix starts to come together. I do have a tactile controller though. I have 24 physical faders, 24 physical pan knobs, physical mute switches, and so that takes a little bit of the sting out of it.

It seems like the old way is much more organic.
I mean, we’re here now and I’ve just had to accept it. I still rehearse a lot. I rehearse with bands a lot before we go into the studio. I look at the arrangements. We talk about tempos and the right key for this or that. I go and see the band play live. So a lot of the other things are still in place and are just as valid as they always were. But now instead of lugging four big reels into the studio, I put the hard disk into my briefcase and walk home with it. But I’m not one of those people who will just zoom in on the molecular level and manipulate music until it’s perfect. That’s not fun. That was the thing about Pro Tools that put me off about it. It’s really just a glorified editor. It’s not a miracle machine.

You still have to play well.
Exactly. I can make it sound like you play better than you do, but I don’t want to. I want you to play well. I want to coax you to play well. I want to inspire you to play well. You want to play well.

Essential Listening: Selected John Siket Discography

This Perfect World, Freedy Johnston
Siket engineered this 1994 release, which cemented his relationship with producer Butch Vig. “I remember I was sitting in my crappy little apartment in Hoboken and the phone rang. It was Butch Vig and he said, “Freedy Johnston. Would you like to engineer?” I said, “Heck yeah.” Then Butch said, “Well, it’s not going to happen for a couple of months, but I’m supposed to record a couple of tracks with Helmet. Do you want to do that?”

Washing Machine, Sonic Youth
Siket produced this album in 1995. He also worked on the band’s previous releases, Dirty and Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. Washing Machine includes the noise-guitar opus, “The Diamond Sea.” According to Siket, the final mix features layered multiple takes. “One [take] is backwards, sort of underneath the forward version. There’s the forward 20 minutes and then somewhere in that 20 minutes you hear a backwards 2-track live mix, as well.”

Crash, Dave Matthews Band
This was Siket’s first time working with legendary producer Steve Lillywhite. The album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 200, and the track “So Much to Say” won a Grammy.

The Siket Disc, Phish
Siket reveals that most of this instrumental album was recorded and simultaneously mixed live to 2-track.