Behind The Sound: Our Interview With Different Fur's Patrick Brown

In between practicing in the garage to playing big gigs is where most bands take some time to record. Now everyone loves a great album but most people don't really know the ins and outs of how an album is actually made. Today we are getting a rare look behind the scenes of a recording studio! We're talking to Patrick Brown, owner and sound engineer of the San Francisco-based studio Different Fur. Over the years Different Fur has worked with artists ranging from Stevie Wonder to and Crash Kings, but no matter who the artist is we found the perspective of the person in charge of "getting it done" quite enlightening.

Can you tell me a little of the history of Different Fur Studios?
Different Fur was founded around 1968 by a guy named Patrick Gleeson who was known as kind of a synthesizer pioneer. He was one of the first Moog [synthesizers] authorized people, like in production services outside of Moog, and he was a synth collector as well and a crazy guy. Because of that he had a lot of people fly out to work with him which was sort of how Different Fur was founded. Originally it was founded at a... like hippie commune for him and his wife and another guy and his wife, that it turned into a recording studio because so many people were flying out to work with him on music. So they built the place, they actually built the place by hand, using drawings from somebody else. Yeah, so for a long time they did a lot of records. They did the Apocalypse Now score there, I think he did all himself. A lot of the early Herbie Hancock, I think he did three records, [such as] Headhunters and Sextant. A lot of stuff like that; he did a lot of development solo projects. One project that's really funny, he did a copy of all the songs from Star Wars all in synth form. Pretty hilarious.

But he was one of those guys, kind of one of those early pioneers and sort of a jazz type musician. And he's still around, I think he just had his 81st birthday. Eventually he passed the studio on to Howard Johnston who had it in the years that most people know it from. The years where they did Stevie Wonder, a lot of Joe Satriani, and Earth, Wind and Fire. There were a lot of celesta records at the end of Patrick Gleeson's era and the beginning of Howard's era. Because of where they were in the Mission [district], because of where we are in the Mission, it's sort of a weird location for something that's over 40 years old. At the time it was mainly sort of a residential and warehouse neighborhood. But I actually had a conversation with Patrick Gleeson where I was saying, "Oh, our neighborhood is changing so much. You had such great foresight to put us in this spot," and he actually said that it's come up a few times in the history of the place, so the location has worked out really well. Being kind of a group of non-bigoted people, being close to the Castro during the disco era, we made a lot of disco records because of it.

Yeah, it's always an interesting scene up there and it's changed a lot.
Yeah, it's pretty crazy because now the Mission has become sort of this central place in San Francisco where all the musicians and artists and Dot-commers and everything are. [laughs] But the place has been there, people think we're new and we've been there for forty-three years because there never was a sign until this last year.

Oh really? [laughs]
Yeah, and people think it's a new space. So I'm sure people blame us for gentrification of the neighborhood. [laughs] But yeah, it's interesting because it's been in this location forever and the neighborhood has sort of grown around it, which is really cool actually.

Absolutely! And there is so much musical history here that is makes sense that there would be a longstanding studio, even if people aren't aware of it.
I think technically we're the oldest studio now; we're the oldest studio in San Francisco proper now.

How did you get started at Different Fur?
I started actually as an intern. There were three owners before me, Patrick Gleeson, Howard Johnston, and then Jeremy Smith. There was sort of a period where when Jeremy took over and all the old engineers had left and so there basically wasn't any business there and there wasn't a lot going on. There were a couple of guys who were making a living but, you know, the place was kind of struggling. And when I went to school, I went to the college, Ex'pression, and I went to school for about five other things before hand and failed my way out of them. [laughs] I sort of decided that I needed to make a decision about what I really wanted to do. And I had been recording friends' bands and recording, you know, various projects with friends for a long time, not knowing what I was doing but doing a decent job of it and so I decided that was what I was going to focus on. Ex'pression was relatively new then so I basically went there and did a two-year program and got out and had to find an internship. I looked around at a lot of places and I turned down a couple places in order to go to Different Fur because I saw that there were two engineers, they were great guys, the place had a lot of history, but I also saw a place where I could grow without just being an intern. There was a lot of opportunity. In an area that doesn't look like there was a lot of opportunity.

So I started as an intern and I just worked. I had worked really hard in school; probably the first time in my life I had worked really hard. You know I was pretty adamant about making this my career. So I would do sessions as an intern, I would sleep there, I would easily never leave... I was the only intern so I was there nonstop. My shift would start at 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning and I would work until the session was over at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. Then I would sleep on the couch and do it all over again.

Different Fur: Patrick Brown, Lindsey Cundiff, Nic Pope

Well I hope it was a paid internship, at least.
No, no, no. Most studios are not paid internships.

Oh no!
Most studios still believe in the sort of apprenticeship system, you know. It's the kind of job that you don't make a lot of money at so you have to really want it and one of the ways that you see if people really want it is how much they're willing to put out there for it. You know I think there are arguments both ways on that, whether it's fucked up that it's not paid or what. But I'm really glad that it wasn't, I'm really glad that it made me earn my place. And I sort of think that that's better for people who are coming up now because there are so many people that graduate from school and they go, "Oh, I paid $70,000 to go to school and I deserve a job right out of school," and it's not really like that. It's a job where you have to want it and if you don't want it 24 hours a day, you don't get it. I mean, I've been in it now for seven years and I pretty much haven't stopped with that same schedule from when I was an intern.

It takes extra dedication when you're doing it and earning you way up.
There are a lot of weird aspects to our jobs that I don't think most people kind of get. The reason I'm actually in New York right now, I was flying back from France. I actually just went to do a master class, with basically the guy who mixes Lady Gaga and all these people. And part of the conversation was that there are a lot of aspects of engineering that people don't quite realize. You're essentially paying attention to the sound, you're paying attention to the vibe in the room, you're paying attention to who's coming in and out, you're paying attention to the reactions that people are giving while they're doing takes to see if you need to kind of coax it into one direction or another. And I think, going with what I just said about interns, I think it's something you have to just watch and learn, and I think that a lot of the people who come out and sort of expect that they deserve a job don't ever learn that because they just think that putting up a mic and hitting record is what they went to school for. It's actually a lot more than that. You know, you're therapist and babysitter for bands, you know, the guy who makes sure it happens and that it sounds good.

There's so much involved, especially if you go to the music fan level, that people don't get. Even within the music business there are a lot of bands starting out who don't completely understand it either. There's some stuff that's missed. There's some legacy stuff from the old guys and this is why I went to that master's class, because I don't really get a chance to learn from the old guys. The guys who have been doing it for 30 years. I'm the "old guy" at my studio which is pretty funny because I'm 33, and most of the old guys have had careers longer than I've been alive.

So it sounds like historically studios are not usually owned by engineers. How does that change the perspective when working with musicians?
This is a really funny question for me because it was a very conscious decision on my part the way that we run the studio. I think there are a lot of the old school aspects of the way studios were run that, you know, through their own inability to evolve they sort of fell off like dinosaurs. But there are a lot of aspects of the way studios were run that people were leaving that are very important and very valuable. It was a real conscious decision on my part to focus the studio on the engineering, and focus it from an engineering perspective. There are a lot of studios around, not just in San Francisco but there are a lot of studios in San Francisco, too, that tout themselves as musician-run studios And that's great, if that's what you want, that's great. I personally believe that when you hire someone to do a job you should hire them for the job that they are trained for, and if I'm going to record something I'm not going to hire a musician to do it, I'm going to hire an engineer to do it. So it's really important to me that we focus from that direction. Now that said, what's different about that is being an engineer is an art form in itself. It's a way of looking at the sound that's being put to tape from the viewpoint of a few different levels. You have to look at it from the musician's side, obviously, because you want to get somebody's piece of work. But also you have to look at it from the consumer side and say, "What is the fan base of this artist? What do they want to hear and how are they also going to be hearing it?" So there's sort of the technical end of that, and then there's the sonic end of it, and then there's the purely creative end of it. And that's really creative in a lot of ways, but it's also a lot of balancing. It's a lot of balancing what the artist who's in the studio needs with what they're trying to put across and how that needs to get accomplished.

I had a client come in, they're not my client but they work with one of our other engineers, and one of the last pieces that he recorded in the studio was, as far as I understand it, it was a song written for a friend who had died and it was pretty serious subject matter. It's the kind of thing that when you're going through the motions you don't realize it but he had to really get himself into a head space, where he was almost balled up on the floor, kind of like emotionally involved in what he was doing at that moment. And you have to keep that energy for that person but also make sure that it sounds good at the same time. Which is really sort of strange. It's sort of like the balance between the performance itself and the actual sound, you know, you're deciding which is more important or how to get both. And they're both completely different things.

Have you seen the recording scene change in recent years?
I definitely think it's changed both positively and negatively. When I started as an intern there was this huge freak out that tape... they were going to stop making tape, tape would disappear, you could never get tape again. Well, they still make tape, seven years later. You know, it's expensive, but they still make it; most people don't use it. I would say that in San Francisco especially, starting with the negative side of it, is obviously kind of the same thing that everyone said, that technology has allowed a lot of people to do things either themselves, or a lot of people who are untrained to do things. That definitely devalues what we do, in a lot of ways. It's part of why, like I said before, of why I'm trying to maintain an engineer-run studio because I think what we do is important. And it is very devalued, especially in San Francisco. I mean, in LA and New York there's still... the prices are still four times what the San Francisco market is.

The old studios in San Francisco kept their prices high and yet the new studios made their prices as low as humanly possible and everyone sort of lost in that, just talking purely price-wise. The old guys went out of business and the new guys basically set the bar so low that most people can't make a living. And we've set our price reasonable but not as low [laughs] because we think we're worth a little bit more than that. That's sort of the downside of all that. The positive side with San Francisco, when I was getting out of school there was no way near... not that San Francisco wasn't a music city, it's always been that... but there was no way near the music scene that there is now. I mean, it's amazing how much music is not only coming out of San Francisco and the Bay Area in general, but also how much music is coming through the Bay Area right now. I was telling somebody else that I learned a lot of it was from the fact that the same people that we blamed for chasing all the musicians and artists away, you know the dot com boom/crash people are now the same people that have brought a lot of that back. I mean, most musicians aren't going to state it that way but the reality is the fact that iTunes and Google, all these companies, YouTube, even now with Topspin, and shit, Root Music, all of these companies are in the Bay Area. They allow that music scene in the Bay Area to sort of thrive in a lot of ways that I think go unrecognized.

And now you see a lot of bands popping up. A lot.
Oh yeah, there's tons. I mean, it's amazing. And like I said I think that there are a lot of people who have helped, it's not just one singular thing that did that, but there are a lot of things that have contributed to bringing that back. I mean, for one I think it's kind of a younger generation getting to the point where they are ready to do that and forming a band and pushing for it. But also I think a lot of people have moved back into the area and life has gotten a lot better.

Given say someone like The Foo Fighters who just recorded their last album in their garage, what are your thoughts about a self-recorded sound vs. a studio recording? Do you think there's a place for all of it?
Of course. I mean, yeah, there's a place for all of it, of course. Even when established engineers always like to complain about the new guys that come out of school they'll do it for a $100 bucks a day or less and it's super undercutting and blobbity blah. But the reality is we were all that new guy at one point and that's how you start a career and as long as you're not trying to devalue everything and you're actually trying to work yourself to a position where you are valuable and people recognize that and whatever, of course. As far as bands recording themselves... I think that bands should do whatever is creatively the best for them. Given enough experience to do that themselves, then great, if that's what you want to try for an album then great. I always suggest that people should have an engineer present. You know, if you're recording in your house, then you should have an engineer present but you don't have to. [laughs] It's smarter at the end of the day.

What about the other side of the coin... one of my pet peeves is hearing an album that has been so over-produced that it's almost like the edge has been taken off the emotion. This is a personal preference, obviously, but I'm surprised how often I hear that. What are your thoughts about that?
Well, I don't know how much of my work you've listened to but I'm definitely an under-producer.

I have heard some of your work and... I want to be able to hear the emotion from the artist and I can hear that with your work.
Absolutely. That's what I want to hear. This is the kind of toss up with that. Like I was saying earlier, you're balancing someone's performance with the technical aspect of recording. You know, the short answer for our job is to give the artist what it is that they want to present to their public. That's it, that's the simplest way to put it. Our job is to help them take what they want to portray and portray it accurately. Old recordings were sloppy as hell, I mean you listen to The Rolling Stones... it's not even the recording that's sloppy, I mean the performance is sloppy. Mick Jagger is singing flat notes everywhere and there are guitars that are hitting out of tune... but it's great. It doesn't matter because it all lends to that. I believe whatever you're listening to should be powerful and whatever emotion is trying to be portrayed should be portrayed. You can record something technically correct without it losing that emotion. And technically correct can be whatever you want it to be. The act of engineering is not necessarily about getting something clean; when I say "doing it right" that doesn't necessarily mean that it's pretty, you know. It can mean that it's completely disgusting and distorted, it really depends on what the music is. That's what our job is. I mean, "over-produced", it depends on what it is. Katy Perry should sound like Katy Perry. I think that's why she's there. I'm definitely going to be singing along to some Miley Cyrus on the radio. I mean, is it my choice of how I would produce something? No, it's not my choice of how I would produce something. It drives me crazy, it's a complete pet peeve of mine when people sacrifice performance for perfection. It completely annoys me. But, you know, a lot of people that's what they want. [laughs]

I hear you. Now it's time for the CB3! I'm going to ask you a series of questions and you tell me which you prefer. Do you prefer Thriller or Purple Rain?
Oh, Purple Rain hands down.

Debbie Gibson or Tiffany?
Oh, that's rough! I had crushes on both of them. Um... Tiffany.

And our last question is Pretty In Pink or Sixteen Candles?
Aw, man! See, that's another tough one. Probably Sixteen Candles. Also, I'm going to go with Purple Rain the movie over all of those.

As compared to the song or the video?
As opposed to pretty much anything else you ask me. Yeah, there was a while where Purple Rain was played at least once a day in my house probably for a period of a couple months. We had a Morris Day obsession, and the complete Prince obsession. I pretty much think The Time is one of the best bands ever. I love that band.

Awesome. It has been so much fun talking with you! Thank you so much!
Absolutely! Thank you!

If you'd like to learn more about Different Fur, you can visit their website and blog.

[photo credit: Molly DeCoudreaux]

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