Situated in “The Sunshine City” of St. Petersburg on Florida’s gulf coast, Mana Recording Studios is surrounded by bright skies, blue water and palm trees. But on the inside, guitarist/producer/singer/songwriter/studio owner Erik Rutan is immersed in crushing, raw, intense tracks for death/thrash-metal bands such as Cannibal Corpse and Goatwhore and also indie-rock legends The Mountain Goats, as well as hardcore/punk legends Madball and Agnostic Front. The view outside serves as an excellent foil to the imperfections happening inside, which suits Rutan just fine. In fact, he embraces it, as his studio philosophy is “performance over perfection.”
“In this day and age, there’s a perceived notion that perfection is the norm, with the overuse of technology—in my opinion—such as auto-tuning and quantization,” Rutan says. “I believe the essence of a quality album is capturing that moment in time and the magic behind it, utilizing the magic from the artists with as little ‘studio magic’ as possible. I try to preserve the performances as much as possible, with as little use as possible of all the editing capabilities. All the little subtleties and humanistic inconsistencies are what gives albums character, and if I need to use any studio magic, I am creative in my own ways to allow the original performances to shine.”
Rutan played for Ripping Corpse and Morbid Angel before forming his own band, Hate Eternal, for which he sings lead vocals and plays lead guitar. Wanting a creative space of his own, Rutan opened Mana in 1999, originally in a 700-square-foot storage facility. In 2003-04, he had a studio in an old house in Tampa. Then in 2005, Rutan opened the current iteration of Mana, which was built in 2004 by his former partner Geno O’ Dor. The studio complex is about 2,000 square feet, located inside a 20,000-square-foot warehouse.
“We have an A room and a B room. The A room is where all the recording magic happens,” Rutan says. “Our live/drum room is 20 by 25 feet with 14-foot ceilings. In addition to our bigger live room, we have a small iso room where I do guitars, vocals, etc.; and we have a nicely sized control room.”
The B room, which used to be a smaller recording area across the hallway with a control room and one iso room, is now occupied by Granville Guitars, which builds and repairs guitars and amps, as well as makes guitar pedals. “I think we may be one of the only studios I know locally that has a guitar luthier/amp repairman on-site,” Rutan says.
Mana Studio A
At the heart of Mana is a 56-channel Amek Mozart console that Rutan has been using for almost 10 years. “I use a Pro Tools HD3 Accel rig for my DAW, and also, from time to time, I use my Otari MTR 90 II 24-track analog machine when I am fortunate enough to do so,” Rutan says. He uses a Neumann U87 as his main vocal mic, KM 184s and AKG 451s for cymbals and acoustic guitar, Sennheiser 421s for toms and guitars, plus “the usual microphones like SM 57s, RE20s, etc. I really like to use my Royer R-121s for guitars and other applications as well. As far as mic pre’s, I use my Vintech x73—1073 design—pretty religiously for guitars, along with a Great River MP2NV. I own an x81 and a 473, all from the Vintech line.” Rutan says he also likes Focusrite mic pres.
When it comes to dynamic processors, Rutan prefers his Distressor and his pair of original dbx 160 VUs. For his mix bus compression, he uses an Alan Smart C-1 compressor. “I do not mix in the box,” he says. “I love the summing of the analog console and tend to use as many channels as needed. I do my automation in Pro Tools, as well as editing and whatnot, so I utilize both in conjunction during mixdown. I have tons of amps, cabs and a great Pearl Reference drum kit, as well.” Some of his favorite amps include Marshall JCM 800 and JMP, Fender Twin Reverb, Engl Powerball and his 1971 Ampeg SVT.
Mana’s drum room
Rutan prefers the production style of older albums, but uses a more modern approach to get that sound. “I love the workflow and characteristics of Pro Tools, but I still tend to approach recording to it as if I were recording to tape,” he says. “I use Pro Tools, I do not abuse Pro Tools, if that makes sense. I always want my albums to sound like the band on their best day. I do love to use Pro Tools for all the automation and editing capabilities as well as other things, of course, but I really, truly believe in trying to maintain and preserve the integrity of the performances at that moment in time.”
Recently, Rutan finished work on Hate Eternal’s latest release, Infernus, as well as Black Fast’s Terms of Surrender and Krisiun’s Forged in Fury, which was one of the first bands he ever produced back in 1999. He also recorded and mixed a Warfather album with his old bandmate from Morbid Angel, Steve Tucker; mixed a prog-rock project; is tracking his own vocals for another project; and will be mixing a band from Australia called Earth Rot soon. Rutan is excited about all of his recent and upcoming projects at Mana. His enthusiasm translates into a lot of hard work and pushing his clients to do their best. Some of his clients lovingly refer to him as “Drill Sergeant.”
“I believe we all need to be pushed to achieve our greatest moments, whether internally or by an outside source,” he says. “I think most people don’t even realize their own potential, and when pushed in a positive and reassuring and reaffirming fashion, you can capture absolute brilliance. I work musicians very hard in the studio to help them achieve that greatness. I feel I’m very good at seeing one’s potential and pulling the best out of them, knowing when to push and when to hold back.”