L.A.’s Sound City is home to Pete Martinez, an engineer who’s worked with everyone from Bon Jovi to Garbage, Queens of the Stone Age and Ry Cooder. Though he’s a true rocker at heart, Martinez has a bit of country song to his story, traveling a long road—from working gigs for country and contemporary Christian artists in Nashville, and projects in Richmond, Virginia—before finding his current niche in L.A.’s rock scene.
Martinez took some time out from mixing forthcoming albums by L.A.’s The Nervous Return—whose style he’s dubbed “the Jesus Lizard meets Bauhaus or The Cure”—and Australia’s Wolfmother to talk about his experiences, only to discover that he went to school with one of Mix’s own beloved editors, Heather Johnson. Yes, it’s a small pro audio world.
Are you working primarily out of Sound City right now?
Yes. I’ve been there about three years now.
What projects have you been working on?
I’ve just finished up a project with a band called The Nervous Return with my friend Joe Barresi; we tracked and mixed the record in 12 days—quite the whirlwind project! Before that, I worked with a band called Wolfmother—they’re more Sabbath-y, Pink Floyd, stoner rock kind of vibe.
You also worked with the Eagles of Death Metal?
Yeah, I recorded that for Josh (Homme)—that’s one of many Josh’s side project. We did that in February/March. We tracked for about eight days, we got most of the record done and then they finished it over at Alain Johannes’ house. We tracked 16 songs before Josh and the Queens of the Stone Age had to leave on tour to Europe—this was right after their record came out—we tracked 16 songs, finished most of about nine or 10, and then they came back off of tour where they had a couple of week-long windows off and they were really trying to finish the record.
I was booked working with a band called Horror Pops, so I couldn’t help finish the record. [As for Horror Pops,] most of them are from Denmark; they have a female singer who has an upright bass. They have this whole technique where they slap the neck of the bass and play the strings that way. It’s this crazy mix between this percussion instrument and a bass. It’s a really interesting sound—a cool sound.
How do you mike for a technique like that?
Lots of microphones! That was the first time that any of us had recorded any upright bass in this style. So, I mean, it was everything. There was a pick up that they put on the backside of the neck of the fretboard, that primarily deals with—the click is what they call it—and there’s also a pick up on the bridge where the strings go across that picks up more of the tone of the bass. They played it through the amp. So, we had mics on the amp and mics on the bass acoustically. In fact, we stuck a little lavalier mic in one of the F-holes of the bass, so we attacked it from all angles. We had five or six different microphones and DIs all going at the same time. They’re a four-piece band: Two guitar-players, one bass player, drummer. It’s kind of a psychobilly/punk rock kind of vibe.
So what brought you to L.A.?
I had actually moved to L.A. from Nashville, and I’d been living here for a couple of years and I had done some work with other studios around town and work had dried up. I called a friend of mine that I hadn’t spoken to in awhile; a week later, he called me and had a gig for me, which worked out really well and then after we finished that gig some time passed.
Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Shivaun [O'Brien], the manager here [at Sound City], and it was a message among some old messages, so I thought to myself “That might be an old message. I can’t imagine why Shivaun would be calling me.” I didn’t return her call. The next day she calls me back on my cell phone and leaves me a message. [We finally got in touch] and she said that a mutual friend had recommended me for the gig, and she was basically wanting to know if I could come to work immediately.
This was on a Tuesday, and I was working a day gig for Warner Bros. Records [working on digital audio projects for its online media component], and so I told her I want the job, but I have to quit my other gig. So the next day [I did quit]. They were pretty understanding, because they knew that this is what I really wanted to do.
So did you move out to L.A. to help promote your career as an engineer?
Yeah, I moved out of Nashville because I was unhappy with the music that I was working on; as you know, that’s largely country music or Christian music, because that’s where all of the labels are located. So I ended up working on a lot of stuff like that. And I’m a rock guy, it just wasn’t where my heart was. Nashville’s a cool town, I have a lot of friends there, but it just got to a point where I felt that I was in the wrong place.
I worked on some non-country, non-contemporary Christian stuff in Nashville: I worked on a Bon Jovi record in Nashville, of all things. [1995’s These Days]—I never thought that would have happened!
How long have you been an engineer and how long were you engineering in Nashville?
I started out at a studio—I had a staff gig in Nashville, and I worked there two or three years. At [the point that I was trying to change directions, from country to rock gigs] I started trying to work with local bands and spent two or three years doing that, and then started playing in a band, and ended up doing a lot of stuff in Richmond, Va., because I was playing with some guys in Richmond and commuting back and forth.
So, did you go to school for engineering?
I went to school at Middle Tennessee State, which is just 35 miles south of Nashville.
Any philosophies about recording that you’d like to pass on to other engineers?
I think if you are going to profess to be an engineer in this business, learning the craft of engineering is important. Too many times, I’ve seen or have worked with people that were introduced to recording through the world of computers. Although there is nothing wrong with using computers, many times the practice becomes a crutch for fixing bad recordings. If you can use a snare sample later, why would you care if the two mics you were using to record the original are in phase or not? Take the time to understand basic concepts like phase or gain structure through a chain of gear. You’ll spend more time making better-sounding recordings and less time flying samples around. And I promise you that will make you happier!
All that being said, I don't profess to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, just someone who understands that there is more to it.
Are there any mentors that you’d like to model your career after?
There are so many. I almost feel like I’ve been let in to this exclusive club by being an employee of Sound City, because I’ve met so many great people—great producers, great engineers—that I’ve learned a lot from. I grew up learning a different style of record-making—look at country records vs. rock records. I think my favorite [influence] right now is Joe Barresi; we have a great working relationship and I think that he’s just a phenomenal producer/engineer. I think he’s terribly underrated, though he’s just finally starting to get his due.
Also, Brett Gurewitz, the owner of Epitaph, is always tons of fun—he’s terribly creative and lets you do your own thing. [Sound City]’s a pretty great, creative environment. I had a producer tell me the other day that I had the greatest job in the world because I got to work in that studio [A]! [Laughs] It’s a magical place.
One last question: If you could record any band out there right now, who would you work with?
Aw, man. I’d still like to do an AC/DC record. I was a big fan as a kid; I can just imagine that it would be a blast. It would be set up and rock, and how can you improve on that?
To find out more about Sound City Studios, please call 818/787-3722 or go to www.soundcitystudios.com. To nominate your favorite engineer for a profile in “Generation Mix,” please e-mail email@example.com.